How Can I Know That He Really Loves Me?

Look to the Cross

Gentle Reader,

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Lots of candy, glitter and general, commercialized cheesiness. That’s what I’m supposed to think about it, anyway. I’ve always liked the holiday. My parents used to leave my brother and I treats on the kitchen table, waiting for us to discover at breakfast, from the time we were little all the way through high school. As an adult, Chris and I have celebrated in a variety of ways, all of which usually end up with us at some thrift store or another, searching for buried treasures.

Tomorrow is also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

Ash Wednesday is not specifically mentioned in the Bible; however, from Biblical times, sprinkling oneself with ashes has been a mark of sorrow for sin. Several times the Bible mentions people repenting in dust and ashes; for example: Mordecai (Esther 4:1), Job (Job 42:6), the inhabitants of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5-6), and Daniel (Daniel 9:3-4). Repentance in dust and ashes often was accompanied with fasting during Bible times. …

Jesus is calling His followers to avoid making a show when fasting, but rather to help those in need. He is calling Christians to think externally in avenues of service, instead of only thinking internally toward themselves. The point of that matter is this: Jesus is interested in the condition of the heart and not merely external appearances or show. As you think about your life…where is your heart? Are you others-focused or self-focused? Do you desire to have true repentance and fasting as mentioned in Psalms 51 (especially verses 10-13, 17), or are your actions merely based on outward tradition?

What is Ash Wednesday? (emphasis mine)

I didn’t grow up observing Lent and the season isn’t heavily emphasized in my denomination, though sermons in the weeks leading up to Easter usually focus on reflection and repentance. In past years I have experimented with different forms of fasting; sometimes I’ve given up social media, other times I’ve abstained from food completely on Good Friday. There are not hard and fast rules regarding the season; I believe that fasting, whatever it looks like, is deeply personal and must be guided by the Holy Spirit. One thing I have learned, though: When I give something up in order to focus on God, I have to actually, you know, focus on God.

Basically, fill in the gap left by setting aside the smartphone with Scripture reading. Or prayer. Or silence. Or worship music. Anything that trains me to put my eyes on Him.

This year I am thinking about the point bolded in the quote above: Jesus is interested in the condition of the heart and not merely external appearances or show.

All the fasting, contemplation and ritual in the world mean nothing if not done with sincerity. If the focus is just on the thing, rather than the Lord, it’s a waste.

Lent is about love. The great love of God that necessitated Incarnation, suffering and the Cross. Whatever we do (or don’t do) in the coming weeks should be out of a desire to thank Him for that love. To see ourselves as the weak creatures we are, the people totally incapable of saving ourselves. To gaze up into the sky, knowing that the Throne is just beyond our sight. To bow in humility, accepting that we can never do anything to earn His favor. It simply is, the greatest of gifts.

Long have I struggled with the concept of God’s love. I can explain it. I can define the terms for you. I can talk about the differences between agape, philos and eros. Intellectually speaking, I “get” it.

Feeling that love, sensing it in my soul, is another story.

We cannot allow our emotions to rule our lives. We have to operate out of what we know to be true. I know this. I preach this. Feelings aren’t bad, though. They are God-given. Jesus cares about what’s going in our hearts. A relationship with Him is about more than mental assent.

Honestly, that freaks me out.

I don’t like vulnerability. This may come as a surprise to you, given the things that I share on this blog, but I hit “publish” on the intimate posts only because I know that there are others out there who battle the same things I do and I can’t be the Barnabas that I want to be if I’m not doing the thing along with everyone else. If I had it my way, if I operated entirely out of my natural inclinations, only the sarcastic, intense, intellectual side of my personality would bleed through onto the screen.

So for me to know that Jesus has the desire to get in there and sort out all the feels in my heart so I can really, freely live out the things I know to be true…yikes.

He’s God, though. You can only fight Him for so long.

This Lenten season, I invite you to ask God one scary question (I’m asking, too): How can I know that You really love me? Then sit back and read. Open your Bible and watch Him in the Garden, agonizing, terrified of the pain and separation to come. Sit in front of the Cross, taking in the full horror of the Savior’s naked body, drowning in blood. Stand next to the women who could not bear to leave Him behind. Weep with Peter. Bow your head in the silence of locked rooms, hope snuffed out like the last bit of candle. Allow the weight of mourning and disappointment to press upon your shoulders.

Contemplate the great sacrifice this Perfect Man, the only Perfect Man, made – because of you. Because of me. Because He doesn’t want to let us go.

Lord God, You know how we struggle to feel loved. You know how easily we believe that You are just like we are, fickle and reckless in Your affection. You know how terrified we are that one day we will wake up and find that You don’t love us at all. Help us, Jesus, to come to the Cross in a fresh way this season. Help us to see with new eyes. Pierce our souls with the grace, the mercy, the true and lasting love that is ours by right of submission to You. Enable us to both feel and to know Your love that we may live confidently in this world, secure in the assurance that we are Yours. Thank you, dear Lord, for the Incarnation and the Cross. Thank You for the Resurrection. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Photo Credit: Diana Simumpande
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Five Minute Friday: Support

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

First, apologies to my writing buddies. I have neglected to interact with your comments and visit your sites for the last two weeks. Life just gets in the way sometimes.

Second, we are slowly but surely sliding into Autumn. I can hardly contain my glee. Cooler temperatures, overcast skies, sweaters, boots, warm socks. I love it all.

Not chat party for me tonight. I put off exercising until late in the day due to yet another smoke invasion. (How I hope and pray that these fires die down soon). While the gang was tapping at the keys, I was yelling at my television, telling the lady leading the program that she’s a sadist and that no, I would not do another set of push-ups.

Kate asks us to: support.

Go.

Antéchomai: to hold before or against, hold back, withstand, endure; to keep one’s self directly opposite to any one, hold to him firmly, cleave to, paying heed to him

StudyLight

Remember, the New Testament wasn’t written in English, not even that of King James I of England (VI of Scotland; it’s complicated). It can be helpful to study the original language – Greek – in order to gain a deeper understanding of the text. One needn’t be a scholar; being able to read or pronounce the words in the ancient tongue is definite bonus points territory, but all that is required is access to the internet, the ability to use a search engine and a desire to learn.

So, an-tekh’-om-ahee.

We find this word in 1 Thessalonians 5:14,

Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.

– NKJV

Uphold the weak.

What does that look like? What does it mean to support the weak? And why is this a command given to us?

Maybe it has something to do with these verses, quoted in this space before, quoted so often in Christian culture,

Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

– NKJV

Jesus is our example. Through the process of sanctification, the Holy Spirit makes us more like Him. As our Lord was humble, patient, kind, loving, all the things we think of as good, so, by grace, must we be. It’s a “go and do likewise” thing. We throw ourselves onto His lap and beg Him to carry us when we just can’t take another step. So we, receiving strength and grace from the Source of life itself, are then able to support our brothers and sisters who can’t take another step. We help them come to the feast table, the mercy seat. Then, when we ourselves are weak, our brothers and sisters help us. On and on it goes.

Sometimes this looks like dropping off a warm meal. Sometimes it’s listening while resisting the temptation to offer advice. Scrubbing floors, rubbing backs, babysitting, discussing Scripture, praying together, weeping with those who weep.

For we are all weak, are we not? In our frailty and the incompleteness of our sanctification, strength lasts but a short while. We are constantly, consistently having to return to the Lord, crying out for Him to breathe life into us once more.

It is our privilege to help each other do so.

Stop.

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Stumbling Servants

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

It is a privilege and a pleasure to serve, even in the chaotic and frustrating moments, because it is a privilege and a pleasure to do as Jesus did. It is an honor to be a vessel for His truth, grace and love.

Took an unplanned break last week. I joined my church family in a large community service project and just ran out of time and energy to sit and let the words flow.

There were some tough spots. I butted heads with people I love. It’s a rough-and-tumble and often dysfunctional family, this one that Christ has bought and created by the shedding of His blood. We’ve got sharp edges and soft spots and somehow always manage to ram our sharpness into another’s softness. Our ideas and ways of doing things don’t always align. Sometimes we get derailed in disagreement, forgetting what the goal really is.

That goal? To serve God by serving others. No strings attached.

This little family of faith to which I belong has had a bumpy year. We could have easily imploded over this event. Instead, as I reflect on the last month, I see a quiet, gentle work of God. We are in no way, shape or form perfect people. Far, far from it. But He used us. He prodded here and pushed there to move us beyond the sticking place. We learned some much-needed lessons. We pressed into some difficult conversations. In the end, we worked as a team – maybe a team that doesn’t always win the game, but a team that makes the plays.

Truth is: The people with whom I worship with week after week can frustrate me like no other. But isn’t that how it is with family? They drive you up the wall, but you love them. You don’t always understand the choices they make. You give them side-eye sometimes. But that love is never in question.

We know that God says we are His children. So I wonder if He looked upon us – sweaty and stumbling and maybe a little crabby – with the kind of expression that crosses a father’s face as he watches his toddler learn a new skill. It’s messy. It’s hard. But when that toddler finally makes progress, hair flying every which way and hands covered with peanut butter – the father beams.

There’s always those little spots in our minds, those unevangelized places, that don’t grasp and rest in the kind of love God has for us. We can recite the verses and say the right things. But there’s a part of us that remains scared. What if I don’t do this right? Holiness, sanctification, submission, obedience – all commanded, all Christ-enabled. Perfectionism? Not so much.

Meditate on this verse with me –

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

– Romans 5:8 (NKJV)

While we were still sinners.

The people with whom we, church folk, interacted at that event did not speak, behave or dress the ways we thought they should. They haven’t always made wise choices. They may have had addictions or come from chaotic, broken backgrounds.

Guess what?

They’re just like us.

Jesus didn’t require us to clean up our acts before He offered help.

Again, holiness gets a big “yes and thumbs up” from God. He doesn’t save us so that we can keep on doing whatever we want. We don’t get to bend the definition of sin or remove certain cherished activities from the category. That’s cheap grace. What Christ did for us certainly wasn’t cheap. It cost Him everything. Nor does He save us so that we can spend the rest of our lives under the tyranny of perfectionism. The Bible is full of stories of regular people who loved God but messed up – and God remained steady in His love for them.

Just like us.

We cannot hoard this treasure. The homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill, the sick, the broken – God loves them, just as He loves us. We don’t need to fear them. We need to listen to them, then tell them. Tell them of the God who made the stars, of the atom-splitting choice in a garden, of sin and struggle, of grace and resurrection.

Then we need to turn around and remind ourselves of these things.

Onward, stumbling servants. Get back up when you skin your knees. Resist the urge to retaliate with someone slaps your face. Seek forgiveness when you need and grant it when asked. Beg God for wisdom. Beg Him to make you gentle. Lace up your boots, gird your loins, roll up your sleeves.

We may not do it perfectly, but the work awaits.

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The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Conclusion

The LORD, the Mighty One

Gentle Reader,

I almost quit.

It’s true.

I never expected to spend half the year blogging through Zephaniah. It’s three chapters! Around week 18, I realized that what began as a project for my own edification had turned into a chore. I’m not sure exactly when or how or why it happened. I began to dread Monday mornings and the stack of books and the research. The joy leaked out bit by bit until none was left.

That is where the discipline part of writing comes in. Having published one book and gearing up to begin the process of publication for a second, I know there are days when it’s all about gritting your teeth and slamming the keys. Writing can be so fulfilling, so fun. It can also be the longest, slowest slog.

I am glad I stuck with it, because God, as usual, is fascinating in His timing. We have lived in the hopeful passages for the entirety of the Advent season. I didn’t plan that. I had no plan when I began this, no set end date (though I never imagined I’d be closing this out six months and two weeks after starting). In His mystery, He moved me, the writer, and you, the reader, to see the grace and light in a book that many ignore. He opened our eyes to the real and deep consequences of sin, but didn’t leave us drowning there in the muck. He took us through the whole process of punishment and forgiveness and restoration, ending on the distant strains of kingdom music just as our mouths began to fill with Christmas songs.

How like Him.

How very like Him.

Every book of the Bible tells the whole story, but cannot be fully understood apart from the others. We’ll never make sense of that. All we can do is strive to live in the middle, resisting the urge to pick out the things we like and toss the rest. Every narrative, poem, allegory, oracle and letter contains the arc of sin and salvation, fall and uplift. Every line is rich, yet not fully grasped as a treasure without the others.

It is my earnest desire that you step away from this series with a solid foundation in how to study the Bible. Your interpretations may be different from mine. That’s okay. What matters is that you now know how to approach that big book. You’ve been exposed to commentaries, word searches and songs. You’ve read articles and answered questions. You know now that there is no “just Jesus and me” Christianity; that you need the input of other believers, both in your “real life” and from within the long tradition of the faith, to help you learn and live. Most importantly, you know now that you are, in fact, smart enough to study the Bible and that you do, in fact, have time to do so.

Yet my heart beats with a desire greater still than this. I hope that you come away with love. Love for the Bible, yes, but love for the God of the Bible. Maybe you didn’t know a thing about Him before reading this. Maybe you’ve known Him for years but have drifted away. Or maybe everything is perfectly fine. Wherever you are in relation to the Lord, I hope that your soul reverberates with, “I love You, too.”

God loved us long before we ever loved Him. He has said over and over, through every splash of ink in sacred writ and down through the ages. “I love you, child. I love you.”

May we love Him, too.

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For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.