Thursday, February 24, 2011

He Who Is Forgiven Little, Loves Little

If you're a true Christian, you've surely found yourself, like me, wanting for love and enjoyment of God, a love that overflows into selfless service and adoration. We want to be full of love for God and our neighbors, because we know that's what will truly satisfy us. But the moments where such delight and zeal become reality are all too few and fleeting. How, then, can we overcome this conundrum?

One day, Jesus went to dine with Simon, a leader in the religious sect called the Pharisees. Contrary to the normal custom of honoring a guest by greeting him with a kiss and washing his feet, Simon received Jesus with neither. As dinner went on, a woman renowned for her promiscuity interrupted the meal to anoint Jesus' feet with perfume. Even more, she began to wash Jesus' feet with her tears and--gasp!--she let down her hair (a gesture reserved only for lovers and husbands) and wiped his feet and kissed them (Luke 7:36-38). I bet you could hear the handfuls of chickpeas and bread drop to the floor. Simon then sneered at Jesus in his heart, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner" (v. 39).

Jesus responds with a parable pointed at his smug, ingracious host to illustrate the simple fact--so simple that even Simon caught it--that the extent to which our burdens have been relieved and our guilt is pardoned determines how grateful our response is. "I tell you [Simon], her sins--and they are many--have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love" (v. 47, NLT). Then he turned to the woman and assured her, "Your faith [in me as loving Rescuer] has saved you; go in peace."

In other words, the extent to which we love and adore God is determined by the extent to which we appropriate the forgiveness he bestows through Jesus. The praise, adoration, and service that were once drudging obedience are transformed into glad reflex when we experience the God's grace, his free removal of all our stains and shame, and calls us "My beloved child, with whom I am well pleased."

It's true that the believer is freely, fully, and forever released from the condemnation of his sin from the moment he embraces the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ as his Savior (Romans 8:1). But that doesn't mean that the experience of our forgiveness lasts forever, or that we stop sinning and needing God's forgiveness. Accordingly, we must continually and openly bring our need to God. Only to the extent that we open up, get honest, and expose our dirt to the God Who Sees and to some brothers and sisters we trust, will we experience the faithfully-forgiving, never-failing love of our heavenly Father. And when his forgiveness and his Word of justification penetrate our souls and lift them out of despair and out of the deluding fog of self-justification, we will find worshipful, obedient gratitude right there as well.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Seeing People

Last post I showed how Jesus' teaching on prayer in Matthew 6 gives us two instructions about prayer: (1) We can and should seek from God in prayer what he says our true needs are in life. (2) The Lord's Prayer directs our way and teaches us what our needs are as the people of God. But even before reading that passage a last week, God has begun to show me that a real need of mine is to learn how to love others better. "To love one's neighbor as oneself is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33).

With this in mind, I borrowed a copy of Paul Miller's excellent book Love Walked among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus (NavPress, 2001). In the first several challenging chapters, Miller unpacks several stories of the Gospels to show that love is active compassion.* But compassion cannot be aroused without stopping our own agendas and putting aside our prior values, beliefs, and judgments to consider others' situations. All throughout the Gospels, Jesus is mentioned as "seeing" or "looking at" people in need. "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (Matt. 9:36) (For a few other examples, see Matt. 9:22; 14:14; Mark 10:21; Luke 7:13; John 19:26-27.)

Seeing someone isn't just collecting aberrant light rays reflected from them. It's taking the time to understand who they are, what their story is, what they're feeling in their situation, and what would make them feel valued and loved in that moment. It's putting yourself in their shoes so that are able to treat them as you yourself would wish to be treated.

I immediately realized how in any given day, I'm generally aloof to a lot of people in my world. A few weeks ago when I went out to lunch with some colleagues, the restaurant manager stopped by our table to ask how our food was and if we needed anything. I paid her little attention, only to later realize she was the mother of one of my students! I felt really stupid.

But God has been good, too, to show me little opportunities to widen my horizon each day, to see that my world's population is more than just one. At Walmart, of all frenzied and God-forsaken places, I actually stopped to watch other people shopping. When babies cried and kids acted up, or people dressed like thugs spoke in some incomprehensible slang, instead of my usual modus operandi of criticizing them I pondered to myself, I wonder what his life is like? What's her story? I bet those parents are just trying to get by and do the best they know how. It was freeing. I took my time at Walmart. I didn't mind waiting in line, even offering a few brief prayers for a few people. I was even blessed to see a few of my old students from last year, who said hi and gave me a hug. And while I am pretty bummed that my wife has had mono for two months, putting myself in her shoes during her illness has made me a lot more cheerful in picking up chores around the house and aware of what she does for us on a daily basis.

Where do you find yourself agenda-driven, self-concerned, and racing through life, unaware of those around you? Who are you quick to judge without first trying to learn why they think and act as they do? If, in starting to see others, do you thank God that right now you might not share in some of their plights? And when you see people with problems in life, do you spend more time thinking about how to fix them, or in talking with them to understand their experiences and perspective? These are all questions I've been forced to reckon with as I do my feeble part to follow Jesus.

* * *

To love one's neighbor may be better than all burnt offerings and sacrifices (Mark 12:33). But sputtering, on-again, off-again neighbors with mixed motives such as I have good news. Jesus himself not only showed how to love, but demonstrated for us the greatest act of love the world has ever seen. The eternally existent Son of God didn't remain in heaven to judge, but himself entered our unloving world to call us his unlikely neighbors and family. He saw the ravages and strain of sin through our own eyes. But because he too saw with God's holy eyes, he was able to enter and bear our own suffering in a way we never could, by giving himself as an offering and sacrifice on the cross to atone for all our self-absorbed lovelessness and to plant a new power for love within the hearts of those who will dare to trust and follow him. "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13; see also 2 Cor. 5:14-15, 21; Heb. 10:1-14). Truly love walked among us.

*I honestly feel so challenged by subtle ways I shortcut love for others that I think I'm going to have to read this book twice: once to learn from Jesus what love looks like (or doesn't look like), so that I can be humbled and guided, and again to let Jesus look at me and love me, the loveless bum of a sinner that I all too often am.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Your Father Knows What You Need

"And when you pray," taught Jesus, "do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (Matthew 6:7-8). Jesus' main point here is that we don't need to instruct our all-knowing, all-good, and generous Father about our needs. We can come to him in trust that he already knows us. We don't have to teach him who we are or persuade him to adopt our point of view.

What then is prayer for? It jumped out to me that prayer is, at least in part, perhaps more to teach us about our needs in life. In prayer we draw near to the One Who Sees (Gen. 6:13), who formed us for his purposes, and who knows our every circumstance. If God "knows what you need before you ask him," we should be asking him to show us what our real needs are. He knows the world, his desires for us, our fears, and the Spirit within us far better than we ourselves. Shouldn't it follow that we should ask him what really matters, where our real needs and deficiencies are? God our Abba always welcomes his children when they cry out to him with their needs and will never turn a deaf ear to our petitions (Matt. 7:7-11). But maybe we need to consider times of prayer with no other agenda than to ask him to teach us what we really need, what is good and best for us, and reorient our values and requests around that.

Jesus continues: "Pray then like this . . ." and teaches his followers how they ought to pray (Matt. 6:9-15). Jesus sets priorities for our prayer--what our needs really are. We need to know God's love as our Father. We need to see God glorified, to live under his reign and to do his will. We need to acknowledge that our lives are in the hands of a trustworthy Provider and be content with what he gives. We need to forgive and to be forgiven--to be filled with and overflow with God's grace. We need awareness of the evil within and without, and to be rescued from it.

We could look at Jesus' other prayers and at other prayers of the saints throughout the Bible to learn our needs, that is, to learn God's view of ourselves and what he values for us. When we hear God's Spirit speaking through his Word what our needs are, what his will is for us, then we can lift those needs back to God with this assurance: "And this is the confidence we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him" (1 John 5:14-15).

"The man who serves you [God] best is the one who is less intent on hearing from you what he wills to hear than on shaping his will according to what he hears from you." (Augustine, Confessions 10:26)