The hardest sinners I find to love

This post started out with the title The sinners I find it hardest to love. But, as I thought more about what my greatest frustration with others is, I found that I fail to understand how to love what is hard. For example, how do you love someone who is more like stone than pliable personality? Even more simply, what does one do with such an individual? When someone is like a stone–harsh and unmoving with a “set” quality to their character–how am I supposed to give and receive life while I am with them? I have spent many hours puzzling over this in the course of my life, and the only thing I’ve decided so far is that it impossible–from my viewpoint, anyway.

The hardest part in trying to learn how to love them is not their sin–in itself–but their commitment to it. Their heart is hard and unable to be molded. I resent their comfort with themselves; the lack of acknowledgment they show towards their own need for change. Often, they are the first one to tell you that you need to change. On the one hand, I agree with them. Yes, I do need to change. It is a given. But, please, whatever you do, don’t use my need to change as an excuse for you to not regard change as a necessity for yourself.

An unwillingness to change or be challenged seems like a kind of death to me. People who live out such a commitment seem to breathe out the death that they allow to stay shut up inside. It’s a fearful cycle. And I so often wish I had the liberty of removing them from it. I think, Why wouldn’t you want to be the best you can be? Why wouldn’t you want to mend your broken ways? I don’t fully understand the unwillingness to acknowledge personal brokenness. That seems so childish to me. Grow up and face the truth, I think; don’t you see that you’re caging yourself up because you don’t?

But no one heeds my internally voiced suggestions. Naturally, this aggravates me exceedingly. Don’t they know I want what is best for them? How can they be so blind to what is needed in their life? It is evident to me, as I write this, that in all these detours, I am trying in vain to take on the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those around me. I think He is somehow to weak and if I take on the job their could be powerfully positive developments. Clearly God needs my help.

But maybe I’m just as blind as the people with whom I’m angry. Maybe the reason for my disgruntled attitude is a problem that is deeper and more personal than I think. Could it be that I’m trying to control more than God has given me power over? If so, this could only be because I was making an idol of the contributions others make to my life–I am lifting them above God and thinking that’s okay.

Has my thinking become an expression of self-exoneration? My actions–even when they are solely at the heart level–reveal my propensity to play the God-puppet in the production of my life. I have commandeered His part so that I can be sure it is acted-out right. But this makes me wonder if I quench the Holy Spirit in myself when I try to play Him for others.

Am I condemning God with my beliefs? If I diminish the usefulness of His ministry to others, I cannot properly be reverencing His presence and activity in my own heart. I must choose whether I will see Him as sovereign in all parts of life or in none.

When I think about what I’m not satisfied with around me–even when it comes to spiritual things–am I putting my own comfort become God’s Lordship? If I think God has to earn the title of Lord, then I have automatically usurped His reign. I think He must prove Himself to me and I do not even see the error in this.

The last question that comes to mind invites me to recognize my ignorance about myself and the graciousness of God to put me in situations that reveal this in ways that move me to action: Do I need to change more than I thought? Perhaps God has not revealed to me all the hardness of my own heart, yet, and I need to encounter the hardness of others hearts to be able to recognize the inflexibility in my own.

I haven’t solved the love problem yet–that is, how I will love others that I currently don’t–but maybe me being able to love others is not the central problem. Maybe God’s love completely permeating me is the problem. Perhaps my greatest concern daily should be that my own heart is being made ever-more tender toward God. Maybe seeing the hardness of others hearts should be a reality check for me–

Lord, I can easily see their hardness toward You, but please show me my own hardness toward You that I can’t see. I know I’m not as tender as You want me to be; I’ve come a long way, but I’m not as far as You dream for me. So please, remove some more of the obstacles in my heart to the change You yet intend for me. I may just find that I’m harder in places than I thought I was–and I need just as much Holy-Spirit softener to act upon me as the person I can’t stand right now!

 

Studying Scripture–what a bore, right?

I don’t know about you, but more than thinking studying the Word of God is boring, I have thought it was impossible. I mean, reading I can do…sometimes. But, getting deep into the meaning of the passage and dissecting the intention behind what is written–how can I be expected to plunge into such religiously intense depths?

It’s not just because I don’t see myself as that kind of person, I also feel that I lack the knack to succeed at it. Of course, I want to know God and understand Him as well as I can, but I just don’t study and I are compatible to that end. Other things do it for me, like prayer, reading Christian living books, listening to sermons, talking to friends who are walking with God. These are all great ways of engaging truth about God, but I sense His Spirit calling me to go deeper. I just wonder, How?

Maybe you find yourself in the same place. You don’t know what to do with yourself when you’re in the place of digging deeper into the Word of God. Maybe you have been in contexts where studying Scripture was one of the assigned activities you had to engage in. Perhaps you sat there with your Bible open, willing to study, if only someone would show you just how you should do that.

Don’t be discouraged if this is you. God knows where you’re starting out when He calls you to investigate the truth of His Word. He knows your obstacles and your insecurities–and He knows just how to help you!

Now, granted, being a great Bible-studying person will not come over night. There is trial and error with this. Lots of it. But, there is the quiet moving of the Holy Spirit behind all of this too. Here is there to strengthen our desire and subsidize our ability. He is eager to lift the deep and unsearchable things of Christ off the page. The only thing He really wants to work on in you is that you would want to receive these things, that you would be willing to work persistently after having them.

He does not want you to feel that the burden is all on you to discover who He is and what He wants to say. Instead, He asks that you acknowledge that He is the only One Who is qualified to teach you all that pertains to His grace and His truth. You discipline yourself, therefore, to put yourself in a place fitting one who waits for God and is ready to receive what He gives. Why don’t you try this the next time you pick up His Word. Disregard your own ability to understand the text and welcome Him to come share the truths with you, to make them relevant to your life and applicable to your heart. Ask Him to give you a heart that receives and obeys His Word and then watch Him give you everything you need to handle His Word the way He wants you too!

So What Can I Expect from God?

I made a solemn pact with myself never to undress a girl with my eyes. So what can I expect from God? What do I deserve from God Almighty above? Isn’t calamity reserved for the wicked? Isn’t disaster supposed to strike those who do wrong? Isn’t God looking, observing how I live? Doesn’t he mark every step I take?

Have I walked hand in hand with falsehood, or hung out in the company of deceit? Weigh me on a set of honest scales so God has proof of my integrity. If I’ve strayed off the straight and narrow, wanted things I had no right to, messed around with sin, Go ahead, then — give my portion to someone who deserves it.

If I’ve let myself be seduced by a woman and conspired to go to bed with her, fine, my wife has every right to go ahead and sleep with anyone she wants to. For disgusting behavior like that, I’d deserve the worst punishment you could hand out. Adultery is a fire that burns the house down; I wouldn’t expect anything I count dear to survive it.

Have I ever been unfair to my employees when they brought a complaint to me? What, then, will I do when God confronts me? When God examines my books, what can I say? Does the same God who made me, make them? Aren’t we all made of the same stuff, equals before God?

Have I ignored the needs of the poor, turned my back on the indigent? Taken care of my own needs and fed my own face, while they languished? Wasn’t my home always open to them, weren’t they always welcome at my table?

Have I ever left a poor family shivering in the cold when they had no warm clothes? Didn’t the poor bless me when they saw me coming, knowing I’d brought coats from my closet?

If I’ve ever used my strength and influence to take advantage of the unfortunate, go ahead break both my arms, cut off all my fingers! The fear of God has kept me from these things — how else could I ever face him?

Did I set my heart on making great money, or worship at the bank? Did I boast about my wealth, show off because I was well-off? Was I ever so awed by the sun’s brilliance, and moved by the moon’s beauty, that I let myself be seduced by them and worshiped them on the sly? If so, I would be deserving the worst of punishments, for I would be betraying God himself.

Did I ever crow over my enemies ruin, or gloat over my rival’s bad luck? No, I never said a word of detraction, never cursed them, even under my breath.

Didn’t those who worked for me say, ‘He fed us well. There were always second-helpings’? And no stranger ever had to spend a night in the street; my doors were always open to travelers. Did I hide my sin the way Adam did, or conceal my guilt behind closed doors because I was afraid what people would say, fearing the gossip of the neighbors so much that I turned myself into a recluse? You know good and well that I didn’t.

Oh, if only someone would give me a hearing! I’ve signed my name to my defense, let the Almighty One answer! I want to see my indictment in writing. Anyone’s welcome to read my defense; I’ll write it on a poster and carry it around town. I’m prepared to account for every move I’ve ever made — to anyone and everyone, prince or pauper.

If the very ground that I farm accuses me, if even the furrows fill with tears from my abuse, if I’ve ever raped the earth for my own profit or dispossessed its rightful owners, then curse it with thistles instead of wheat, curse it with weeds instead of barley.

The words of Job to his three friends were finished.

Job 31

When I read this I cringe…for the Word of God to so blatantly address sin, sin so common to every man and woman, is to challenge my ideas of what holiness really looks like — what God must be.

In my experience as a self-righteous Christian, it has always been my belief that someone with the goal of being holy must avoid all that is evil, even the very appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22, KJV). While I believe this is true, I have marked my attainment of this height of “spirituality” with self-exaltation, rather than glory to God for the reaches of His holiness that are still so beyond even my best ideas of perfection.

And in my attempts to exalt myself in this way, I have coupled God in with this judgment. I set Him up as a god that is as restricted as I am: God must not touch evil, speak of evil or “fail” to deliver me from evil. Yet, when I consider the cross, and all that it was meant to accomplish, I must stop.

God is at once a holy Deity who must be against evil in all of its visages, and a merciful Savior who yearns for the treasured sinners of His own creation. We who are evil are not beyond His touch or concern. He did not come to earth to avoid the evil that contaminates our world and us, but rather to reveal the truth that bridges the gap between who we are and who we can be in Him.

So what can I expect from God? Not what I readily expect: Hope, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness, Self-Control. (Yes, God knows more about those qualities that emanate from the Holy Spirit than we ever could!) Unless we by-pass the cross, we cannot miss Christ’s embodiment of the very salvation and transformation of mankind. All that was or ever will be missing in our lives (or hearts) is Him; He came to us that we might know the depth of abundance we were created for: Him!

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels — everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and  holds it all together,right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.

He was supreme in the beginning, and — leading the resurrection parade — is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there. Towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all of the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe — people and things, animals and atoms — get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from that cross.

You yourselves are a case study of what God does. At one time you all had your backs turned to God, thinking rebellious thoughts of him, giving him trouble every chance you got. But now, by giving himself completely at the cross, actually dying for you, Christ brought you over to God’s side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence. You don’t walk away from a gift like that! You stay grounded and steady in that bond of trust, constantly tuned in to the Message, careful not to be distracted or diverted. There is no other Message, just this one. Every creature under heaven gets this same Message. I, Paul, am a messenger of this Message.

I want you to know that I’m glad its me sitting here in this jail and not you. There’s a lot of suffering to be entered into in this world — the kind of suffering Christ takes on. I welcome the chance to take my share in the church’s part of that suffering. When I became a servant in this church, I experienced this suffering as a sheer gift, God’s way of helping me serve you, laying out the whole truth.

This mystery has been kept in the dark for a long time, but now its out in the open. God wanted everyone, not just Jews, to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out, regardless of their background, regardless of their religious standing. The mystery in a nutshell is just this: Christ is in you, so therefore you can look forward to sharing in God’s glory. It’s that simple. That is the substance of our Message. We preach Christ, warning people not to add to the Message. We teach in a spirit of profound common sense so that we can bring each person to maturity. To be mature is to be basic. Christ! No more, no less. That’s what I’m working so hard at day after day, year after year, doing my best with the energy God so graciously gives me.

I want you to realize that I continue to work as hard as I know how for you, and also for the Christians over at Laodicea. Not many of you have met me face to face, but that doesn’t make any difference. Know that I’m on your side, right alongside you. You’re not in this alone.

I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God’s great mystery. All the richest treasures of wisdom and knowledge are embedded in that mystery and no where else. And we’ve been shown the mystery! I’m telling you this because I don’t want anyone leading you off on some wild goose-chase, after other so-called mysteries, or “the Secret.”

I’m a long way off, true, and you may never lay eyes on me, but believe me, I’m on your side, right beside you. I am delighted to hear of the careful and orderly ways you conduct your affairs, and impressed with the solid substance of your faith in Christ.

My counsel for you is simple and straightforward: Just go ahead with what you’ve been given. You received Christ Jesus, the Master; now live him. You’re deeply rooted in him. You’re well constructed upon him. You know your way around the faith. Now do what you’ve been taught. School’s out; quit studying the subject and start living it! And let your living spill over into thanksgiving.

Watch out for people who try to dazzle you with big words and intellectual double-talk. They want to drag you off into endless arguments that never amount to anything. They spread their ideas through the empty traditions of human beings and the empty superstitions of spirit beings. But that’s not the way of Christ. Everything of God gets expressed in him, so you can see and hear him clearly. You don’t need a telescope, a microscope, or a horoscope to experience the fullness of Christ, and the emptiness of the universe without him. When you come to him, that fullness comes together for you, too. His power extends over everything.

Entering into this fullness is not something that you figure out or achieve. It’s not a matter of being circumcised or keeping a long list of laws. No, you’re already in — insiders — not through some sort of secretive initiation rite but rather through what Christ has already gone through for you, destroying the power of sin. If it’s an initiation ritual you’re after, you’ve already been through it by submitting to baptism. Going under the water was a burial of your old life; coming up out of it was a resurrection, God raising you from the dead as he did Christ. When you were stuck in your old sin-dead life, you were incapable of responding to God. God brought you alive — right along with Christ! Think of it! All sins forgiven, the slate wiped clean, that old arrest warrant canceled and nailed to Christ’s cross. He stripped all the spiritual tyrants in the universe of their sham authority at the Cross and marched them naked through the streets.

So don’t put up with anyone pressuring in details of diet, worship services, or holy days. All those things were mere shadows cast before what was to come; the substance is Christ.

Don’t tolerate people who try to run your life, ordering you to bow and scrape, insisting that you join their obsession with angels and that you seek out visions. They’re a lot of hot air, that’s all they are. They’re completely out of touch with the source of life, Christ, who puts us together in one piece whose very blood and breath flow through us. He is the head and we are the body. We can grow up healthy in God only as he nourishes us.

So, then, if with Christ you have put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it? “Don’t touch this! Don’t taste that! Don’t go near this!” Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention? Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice. They even give the impression of being pious and humble and ascetic. But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes on the ground, absorbed on the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what’s going on around Christ — that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.

Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life — even though invisible to spectators — is with Christ in God. He is your life. When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up, too — the real you, the glorious you. Meanwhile, be content with obscurity, like Christ.

And that means killing everything connected with that way of death: sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust, doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, and grabbing whatever attracts your fancy. That’s a life shaped by things and feelings instead of by God. It’s because of this kind of thing that God is about to explode in anger. It wasn’t long ago that you were doing all that stuff and not knowing any better. But you know better now, so make sure it’s all gone for good: bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity, dirty talk.

Don’t lie to one another. You’re done with that old life. It’s a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete. Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone i included in Christ.

So, chosen by God for this new way of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.

Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ — the Message — have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives — words, actions, whatever — be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.

Wives, understand and submit to your husbands in ways that honor the Master.

Husbands, go all out in love for your wives. Don’t take advantage of them.

Children, do what your parents tell you. This delights the Master no end.

Parents, don’t come down too hard on your children or you’ll crush their spirits.

Servants, do what you’re told by your earthly masters. And don’t just do the minimum that will get you by. Do you best. Work from the heart for your real Master, for God, confident that you’ll get paid in full when you come into your inheritance. Keep in mind always that the ultimate Master you’re serving is Christ. The sullen servant who does shoddy work will be held responsible. Being a follower of Christ doesn’t cover up bad work.

And masters, treat your servants considerately. Be fair with them. Don’t forget for a minute that you, too, serve a Master — God in heaven.

Pray diligently. Stay alert with your eyes wide open in gratitude. Don’t forget to pray for us, that God will open doors for telling the mystery of Christ, even while I’m locked up in this jail. Pray that every time I open my mouth I’ll be able to make Christ as plain as day to them.

Use your heads as you live and work among outsiders. Don’t miss a trick. Make the most of every opportunity. Be gracious in your speech, the goal is to bring out he best in the others in conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.

Colossians 1-4:1-6