Aug 7 2010

God Loves You And Has A Wonderful Plan For Your Life

In 1952, Bill Bright wrote The Four Spiritual Laws, an evangelistic tract that became the calling card of Campus Crusade for Christ. While this was three years before I was born, I probably didn’t encounter it until my late teens.

When I started college in 1973, I got to know people from the main Christian groups on the UND campus: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and of course, Campus Crusade. I was pretty clueless about denominational differences, and saw nothing odd about being Lutheran. I was pretty accepted by the InterVarsity folks, but I couldn’t understand why the Campus Crusade kids kept wanting to go through the Laws and pray “the prayer” with me. My telling them I was a Christian wasn’t enough; I had to jump through their CC-shaped hoop in order to be accepted by them.

This trite, cookie-cutter approach to evangelism became something of a joke to me, and I recall beginning conversations with kids on campus with the first of the Four Spiritual Laws, “Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?” Perhaps twenty years later, it would occur to me that God has a rather ironic sense of humor, as my primary message had become that God indeed loves us and has wonderful plans for our lives. As God says to Israel in Jeremiah 29:11,

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (NIV)

While I can’t recall why I understood this as a young child, I did understand that God loved me and, yes, had a plan for my life. Perhaps it was from the many Bible stories I learned in church and Sunday school about people like David, Samuel and Moses, chosen as children to serve God. Whatever the reason, I not only knew that God loved me, but also knew that I was destined for great things.

The world around me, of course, did everything possible to destroy this sense that I was loved and special. The message that the world gives is that we have to perform to certain standards to receive any love or respect, and that we will never, ever really be good enough. As with shame, this sense of needing to do more and try harder keeps us controllable by the powers that be.

As I left college and entered the corporate nightmare, this became all too clear. No one out there loves you unconditionally, and their plans for you are not necessarily for your own benefit. The message that God loves us and has wonderful plans for us is crucial; I believe this is one reason why Joel Osteen pastors what I understand is the largest church in the country. People don’t hear this in the world (or in many churches), and they are literally dying for it.

Jesus’ message to children was, “You’re special, and you’re loved.” Jesus’ message to Zacchaeus was, “You’re special and you have a purpose; can I hang out with you?” To the sick and the sinners, he said, “I know you, and you’re worth a miracle. There’s a better life waiting for you.” To the least, he said, “Come up higher. I love you and have a wonderful plan for you.”

I relished this message as a young child. I cling to it today. God loves me, this I know, and He has a wonderful plan for my life. And guess what? He’s got a doozey of a plan for you, too.

Questions:

  1. What was your reaction the first time you heard, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life? What is your reaction today?
  2. If you had one message to share with the world, what would it be?


Aug 4 2010

My First Bible Memory Verse

I recall rehearsing for my first Christmas pageant, though I don’t recall the pageant itself.  I don’t have any idea how old I was, but I was possibly three or four. All of us in my Sunday school class had speaking parts; that is, one line Bible verses. We simply were to take turns walking up to the microphone, saying our line, and walking back to our seats. I was naturally quite nervous, and I can recall sitting on my bed while my parents helped me to rehearse my line, over and over:

“God loved us and sent His son. First John, four ten.”

Obviously my practicing worked, as I still remember it.  The full version is this:

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (NIV)

This verse, coincidentally, makes a point that I made previously: It is not our emotions concerning God that is important so much as knowing the truth that God – not just Jesus, but God the Father – loves us. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not inappropriate to display or vocalize our emotions. However, our emotions are capricious; they change quicker than the weather in Oregon and are, therefore, a notoriously bad gauge of truth. The fact that we feel love for God tells us absolutely nothing – the fact that God loves us tells us everything.

Many people have the mistaken belief that Jesus is the “good God” who loves us and the Father is the stern, hard to please God who is just one sin away from zapping us. In truth, while knowing the Father and the Son are separate persons within the Trinity (more on this later), the purposes and emotions of Jesus and the Father cannot be separated. As Jesus so aptly put it, “The Father and I are one. (John 10:30)” Jesus also said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)” We know what the Father is like by knowing Jesus. When we see Jesus reaching out to children, the poor, the sick, and the sinners, we see the true heart of the Father.

This means that the God of the Old Testament – the one who obliterated Sodom – is the same God who is revealed to us in Jesus. How can this be? The writer of Hebrews put it like this:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. (Heb. 1:1-3a)

In the Old Testament, God was revealed through men. In the New, we finally see the “exact representation” of the God of the Old Testament. As the New Century Version puts it, Jesus “shows exactly what God is like.” If we know God’s love as expressed in Jesus, we can then begin to see that same God in the Old Testament. Really.

Putting it another way,  reading the Old Testament is like looking at God through a dirty, distorted piece of old glass. Seeing Jesus in the Gospels provided an unobstructed view of God as he really is, a God motivated by love, compassion and grace. If we are shown two photographs of the same person – one faded, dirty, and blurry, and the other in high resolution color – which one would best tell us what the person looks like? There may be some details in the faded photo that are missing in the good one, but first we’d see what the good photo shows us and then look for that person in the old photo. We should start with what is clear, and then use that to understand what is unclear.

What is clear about God is, as my first Bible memory verse said, “God loved us, and sent His son.”

Questions:

  1. What is the first Bible verse that you memorized? At what age?
  2. What has been your image of God, as expressed in the Old Testament?


Jul 31 2010

From Luther, With Love

Growing up Lutheran, I was well acquainted with Martin Luther. As I’ll talk about a bit later, he has always been one of my heroes. Luther, like many Roman Catholics of his day (not to mention most contemporary evangelicals), was heavily influenced by St. Augustine, with his doctrines of man’s total depravity, original sin, and inherited guilt.As anyone who has seen the movie Luther knows, Brother Martin struggled with his sin, his guilt, and the need to know that he was forgiven.

The torment of his guilt was such that when he finally saw that God operated by grace and love and not by our ability to live pious lives or follow men’s rules, he was willing to die rather than retract his teaching. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther responded to the demand that he recant with these words:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Like Luther, the reformer John Calvin was also greatly influenced by Augustine, and we can see Calvin’s Augustinian influence throughout much of the contemporary evangelical church, even in groups who do not identify themselves as Calvinists. However, Luther discovered what Calvin seemed to miss: The primacy of God’s Love. It was the knowledge that God was motivated by His love for us – rather than the need for God to assert His holiness, vengeance, or glory – that finally set Luther free.

I have no doubt that Luther’s beliefs were firmly founded on his reading of Scripture, as he stated at Worms, though I suspect his own personal experience of grace and God’s love that accompanied his theological breakthrough reinforced his commitment to the Gospel. Luther wrote,

“Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through an open door into paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven . . . .”

Having this revelation of God’s love, Luther was able to make such bold statements as, “Love God and do as you please” and the oft-quoted and often misunderstood, “Sin boldly.” Anyone who has read Luther will know that by no means was Luther encouraging licentiousness or sinfulness. Rather, Luther was convinced that we did not need to become holy before we can approach God; furthermore, he knew that we couldn’t if we tried. Being human, we will fail – however, that should not keep us from drawing near to God. As the writer of Hebrews said, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:16 KJV)”

How else can we ever hope to boldly and with confidence (Heb. 10:19) enter God’s throne room, unless we are first convinced of God’s love for us? Even if we fully believe in the mechanics and legalities of our salvation, without being confident of God’s love, walking into God’s presence would give us a moment of pause. Is He perhaps just a little angry that we got in? Should I have given a dollar to that homeless man yesterday, or tithed more regularly? Will I be one of those to whom God will say, “I don’t know you?”

The true legacy that Luther gave to the Evangelical movement (which later became known as the Lutheran Church) is this certainty that we are indeed loved by God, the Creator of the universe.

It was, then, this rich heritage into which I was born, and for which I am eternally grateful.

Questions:

  1. Do you have a sense of having received a spiritual legacy, either personally, or in the church group you belong to?
  2. How does this flavor your present spiritual experience?


Jul 20 2010

This I Know

As I write in my introductory post My Childhood God,  I have discovered that I still believe in the same God I believed in as a child. That is, I believe much of the same things about God that I did as a child. While I have grown in experience and knowledge and my beliefs have been refined, I find that what I learned about God still holds true today.

I should also point out here that my understanding of God’s character and how He acts appears to be in conflict with the beliefs held by many people (hereafter referred to as OPB, or Other People’s Beliefs).  Some of these OPB were held by me at some point in my journey, others I have always rejected. My point is not that I haven’t changed what I believe; to the contrary, I have been in constant change. On at least two occasions I have gutted my library of books that I no longer agreed with. However, I am aware that I had a knowledge of God as a child that has remained. I also have discovered that I had a pretty decent theological education as a child.

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

My absolute core belief about God is that He loves me unconditionally. While various people over the years have tried to convince me that I have to jump through certain hoops in order to earn that love, I don’t recall any point in my life where I was not convinced that God loved me unconditionally. I know that this is not common, and it’s something for which I am quite grateful. I know far too many people who were raised believing that God was a stern master, more like the “angry God” of a Jonathan Edwards sermon.

My childhood memories are for the most part fragmented and random, filled with more emotion than fact. When I was three, I was given a small record player (some of you will remember records).  The case was red and white plastic, with a cover that lifted back to reveal a small turntable, just large enough to play 45 RPM records, and a tone arm so heavy I’m surprised it didn’t actually cut through the plastic disks. I had an assortment of 78’s and 45’s (we’re talking lat 1950’s, folks) which included an assortment of children’s songs, including the standard Jesus Loves Me (although my favorite was a 45 my dad had of Chopin’s Les Sylphides – go figure).

Jesus Loves Me is still a favorite of mine, the lyrics presenting a simple truth:

Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong
They are weak, but He is strong

Truth like this is hard to beat; and, unfortunately, it often seems hard to find in many contemporary worship choruses which tend to focus on our emotions about God rather than truth about God’s emotions toward us. If your church sings a lot of contemporary choruses, chances are many of them focus on “I” – “I will follow you” or “I love you.” We have this idea that worship depends upon our action towards God, as if we’re initiating the relationship.

The reality is that God really does love us unconditionally. When I hear “Jesus loves me,” I cannot help but respond; it’s how we were designed.  Unfortunately, there are many who have been so damaged by bad teaching about God or who have made emotional connections between the Heavenly Father and bad earthly fathers that they simply cannot receive such truth. Personally, I believe that we all need to hear “God loves you” over and over again. Like dripping water slowly boring through solid rock, eventually the truth that God loves us will break through.