How Are We to Love God?

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your  mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)

Jesus is describing how broad, deep and complete our love of God should be.  It should include heart, soul, mind and strength.

With our heart and soul, we love God with our non-physical and eternal nature – that part of our inner being that uniquely reflects who we are as an individual person and a creation of God.  With our mind, we love God with our physical and present nature – our intellect, thought, reason and will.  With our strength, we love God with our actions supported by our determination and perseverance.   

To help us understand how to love an unseen God, Jesus gives a human illustration in what he describes as the second commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love of self, or survival, is one of the first laws of nature.  It is instinct.  We don’t even have to think about it.  The love Jesus is calling us to embrace, however, is to overcome the instinct of putting self first.   

So how do we love like this?  Let me illustrate with a story.

I have a friend, Jack, who used to own and insurance brokerage.  His office manager was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue and had surgery.  She could no longer speak clearly, which was the most important part of her job in interfacing with the firm’s customers.  She was one year from retirement and for her to stop work at this time would have resulted in  significant personal hardship.  Jack took the time to personally call all of the firm’s more than 80 customers to let them know of her condition and ask if they could work with her under the circumstances.  He also asked them for their prayers and understanding.

Jack said, “I knew they loved and respected her, but I didn’t realize how much until the cards, letters, flowers, and gifts came pouring into the office.”  Both the employees of Jack’s firm and the customers expressed a desire to work with her in spite of her disability until her retirement at age of 65. 

Here we see the kind of love that Jesus was talking about in Jack’s effort to go the extra mile on behalf of his office manager.   

Loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength starts with the little things. If we let them become a habit, then we start to love God as Jesus commands.

Think of a time when you loved another person with your whole being.  Did you realize you were loving God as well?     

Opportunists for God

“Watch carefully then how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.  Therefore, do not continue in ignorance, but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.” (Eph. 5:15-16) 

Surely in our day, with escalating murder rates and random shootings in schools, theaters and churches, there is no less evil than what Paul saw in his day.  Nor is our need to seize opportunities to serve God and build his kingdom any less. 

The key, Paul says, is to be wise and understand God’s will.  This requires a mindset of always asking what the Lord’s will is in every situation, particularly with the people we encounter — family, work colleagues, friends and strangers. 

These opportunities are often unexpected.  Once I was at lunch with a work colleague who started to share how he was estranged from his wife.  He was feeling bad for some things he had done, but was angry over her response.  I just listened as he uncharacteristically shared his emotion over the crisis in their relationship.  Though we were in a public restaurant, I reached across the table, took hold of his arm and prayed that God would give him the courage and grace to reach out to his wife, and that they would both open their hearts to forgiveness and reconciliation. 

While I never learned the details, they did subsequently reconcile.  In reflecting on the moment, I believe God’s grace prompted me to say the prayer and use it to soften hearts and bring an end to this estrangement. 

When someone expresses a need or lets us know that they are hurting, alarm bells should go off alerting us to an opportunity to be and bring God’s presence into the situation.  As Paul suggests, our first reaction should be to understand God’s will. “What do you want me to do and say, Lord?”  

Jesus seized countless opportunities to heal a cripple, give sight to the blind, expel a demon, open the ears of the deaf and even raise the dead to demonstrate that the kingdom of God was at hand.

The Book of Acts reports that Peter and John did not pass by a crippled beggar as they entered the temple, but similarly seized the opportunity to demonstrate that the kingdom of God was at hand by commanding the beggar to stand and walk.

Do you look for opportunities to build God’s kingdom in the daily moments of your life?

The Divine Power of Truth

“For this I was born, for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

These were Jesus’ words to Pontius Pilate as he was questioning Jesus to determine whether he should be crucified.  Ironically, Pilate’s response was, “What is truth,” when the embodiment of all truth was standing right in front of him.     

Truth, the knowledge of God, his word and work, has divine power.  It demolishes lies, deception, and all manner of error.  Since truth is from God, it is eternal and never fades or dies, in contrast to lies and deception which may last for a while, but are eventually discovered and proven false.

Truth on the other hand may lie dormant for a time, but is always discovered and demolishes the stronghold of lies.  Examples in our world today include such questions as when life begins, and what constitutes marriage.  If we discovered biological cells on Mars, the headlines would declare “Life Found on Mars!”  Yet, a human egg fertilized with a human sperm is not?  Genesis and all of nature declare that marriage is between a “male and female.” (Genesis 1:27)  But the wisdom of this world through our highest court says it is not?  Is our culture exchanging the “truth of God for a lie,” as St. Paul mentions in Romans 1:25?

History testifies to the power and lasting nature of truth. The Roman Empire oppressed and persecuted Christians for more than 300 years.  Yet, historian Will Durant, not necessarily an advocate of the Christian faith, eloquently observes:

“There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has known.  Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won.” (Caesar and Christ, p. 652)

In recent memory we have seen regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union seek to oppress and outlaw the truth of God, but instead the power and eternal nature of truth brought each of them crashing down.

Jesus said, “If you remain in my word…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  (John 8:31-32)

Do we appreciate the power of truth?

Do Not Be Afraid

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 31:8 NIV)

These are the words of Moses as he appointed Joshua to be his successor for taking the people of Israel across the Jordan River into the land of Canaan.  Taking a people into a new land and removing the people who were previously there is indeed a formidable task, and it was understandable that Joshua was experiencing fear and doubt.  Moses told Joshua, “Be strong and courageous.”

Have you ever become fearful about whether you could handle a new task or situation that appears daunting? 

The possibilities are many — taking on a new job whose responsibilities appear to exceed your skills and experience; facing the loss of employment; trying to restore a relationship that is broken; persuading a rebellious child to change his or her ways; providing ongoing care of a loved one; facing an illness involving suffering, disability or even death.  All of these circumstances can give rise to fear and doubt. 

After serving as an attorney for an oil company for most of my career, my last assignment involved overseeing our corporate policy and compliance for environmental, health and safety activities of the company worldwide.  The entire staff was made up of engineers and technical people, taking me way out of my comfort zone.  There were times when our staff was challenged when attempting to bring certain compliance issues to the attention of senior management and our Board of Directors.  Although tempted by fear to back away from our findings, I prayed that the Lord would go before us.  Interestingly, on every occasion when this happened the senior management of our company supported our findings and ordered changes in how things were being done. 

When Jesus was calling Peter and Peter responded that he was a sinful man, Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid.”  When angels approached Zechariah, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds, on each occasion they said, “Do not be afraid.”  At the Last Supper, Jesus said to all of the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:1)

St. John Paul II opened his pontificate with the words, “Be not afraid!”  He went on to say, “These are not words said into a void.  They are simply the words of Christ himself.   Do not be afraid of God who became man!”

Are you moved by fear and doubt when facing a challenging situation, or do you ask the Lord to go before you?  Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

A Good Shepherd in Today’s Culture

“I am the good shepherd.  A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  (John 10:11)

Most of us have never been around sheep, nor would we think of ourselves as shepherds.  We may view the analogy appropriate for pastors or bishops, but not for ourselves. 

Yet, many of us are responsible for members of our families, employees who may work for us, customers whom we serve, or even friends who may have an expectation of support. As the good shepherd, Jesus distinguished himself from the hired hand who abandons the sheep when the wolf comes because the sheep are not his and he does not really care for them. (John 10:12)

Let me share a story of John, a county prosecutor from Duluth, Minnesota to illustrate how we can be good shepherds.  In one of his early cases, he was surprised to discover that the defendant he was prosecuting was a former high school friend, Jim.  Over the next 26 years Jim would be prosecuted a dozen times for theft-related crimes to support a chemical dependency. 

During what turned out to be Jim’s last prosecution, he learned that he was terminally ill with sclerosis of the liver.  His lawyer arranged for him to be assigned to a hospice.  Jim asked his lawyer to let John know about his condition and to request his prayers. 

Over the next six months John did more than just pray for Jim.  He visited him two or more times a week.  They reminisced about growing up in the 1950s and talked about their favorite baseball players.  They also read the Bible together.  That fall, Jim repented of his sins and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. He died in November. “Jim loved reading and praying the psalms,” said John.  “God used Jim to teach me about acceptance of suffering and perseverance.  He showed me that it’s never too late to say yes to the Lord, no matter what we have done.

John concludes, “Because God answers prayers, Jim said, ‘yes’ to Christ before he died, and I know he is in paradise today – just like another thief who died on the cross next to Jesus 2000 years ago.”

John was a good shepherd of his responsibilities as a prosecutor, and to even the people he prosecuted.  Before every trial, John says, “I pray for the truth to be known, for a just result, and that everyone involved would come to know Christ.”  John sacrificed his time in supporting Jim and leading him to Christ before he died.  He did not run like a “hired hand” in the face of a challenge as Jesus mentioned with the wolf. He persevered in going after a lost sheep in the person of his high school friend, Jim. He was faithful until he brought him home to the Father, just like “the good shepherd [who] lays down his life for his sheep.” 

Are you a good shepherd of the people and responsibilities entrusted to you?

The High Cost of Lies

It takes a lot of effort to support a lie.  Can you remember a time when a little “white lie” led to another lie, and then to another?

The chief priests and elders of Jesus’ day did not know how to deal with an empty tomb and the possibility that Jesus, whom they crucified, was raised from the dead.  Most everything that Jesus said and did was outside their paradigm for a Messiah.  His resurrection was untenable to them.  So, they devised a lie and paid those who were guarding his tomb a large sum of money to testify to the lie.  As Matthew reports, “Then they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him while we were asleep.’  The soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed.” (Mt. 28:12-13, 15)

Providing cover for a lie can get complicated, taking time, creating anxiety and exacting an emotional toll.  How often have we seen public figures pay a high price for living a lie, sometimes costing them their marriage, family, career and, like the chief priests, even hush money?

In contrast, I have a friend, Pat, who had struggled to get a job after completing her master’s degree.  She obtained temporary work at a small university to write a report about the effectiveness of a federal grant for a media center to improve teaching methods.  When her report included survey data about the lack of use of the media center by the faculty, she was asked by the department chair to alter the data so that he and the university would not look bad.  He implied that a permanent job would be in the offering if she acceded to his request, but probably not if she refused.  Pat refused to go along with the lie. The job was not offered.  But Pat’s conscience was clear, and her response helped her get even a better job months later. 

Truth is less complicated than a lie.  It is liberating.  It is cleansing.  The lack of truth is an obstacle to the Holy Spirit acting in our lives, while its presence testifies to the power of God.

Jesus said, “If you remain in my word…you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.  I am the way the truth and the life.” (John 8:32; 14:6) 

How much do we value the truth?  How much is a lie costing us? 

Jesus Responding to Our Requests

 “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51)

This is the question that Jesus asked Bartimaeus, a blind man sitting beside the road outside of Jericho as Jesus passed by.   “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me,” yelled Bartimaeus.  Those nearby rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the louder, “Son of David have pity on me.”

Mark reports that in spite of the large crowd and the efforts to suppress Bartimaeus’ shouts, Jesus stopped.  Though he could see that Bartimaeus was blind, he did not presume to act on his need.  Instead, Jesus asked what it was that he wanted him to do.

What an amazing moment for Bartimaeus!  He knew his need – “Master, I want to see.”  Jesus granted his request.  “Go, your faith has saved you,” and immediately Bartimaeus received his sight and followed Jesus. (Mark 10:46-52)

If you were able to meet Jesus face to face, how would you respond to his question, “What do you want me to do for you?” 

When our children graduated from college and entered their adult years, my wife started praying that God would introduce each of them to just the right Christian person to marry.  After twenty-five years, four weddings and thirteen grandchildren, it appears that God surely answered those prayers.

We may not always know what our true need is.  Our physical needs are usually more obvious, but sometimes we need other things such as help in giving up a particular sin, or offering and receiving forgiveness.  Sometimes we ask for the wrong things, like James and John asking to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand when he came into his glory.

Solomon asked for wisdom instead of riches and God gave him both.  I have never asked God for money or position, but he has more than provided for the needs of our family. I have made countless requests for my wife, children, grandchildren, and friends, and many of those requests have been answered. 

What do you want Jesus to do for you? 

Work — Part of God’s Plan

“The Lord God took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work and take care of it. (Genesis 2:15) 

After creating us in his image and likeness, God gives us an assignment – to work and take care of his creation.  Many people look on work as a curse resulting from the fall, but work was ordained before the fall, so work is a part of God’s divine plan for us.  Our purpose is to take care of creation until God is, as St. Paul says, “all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28)

Lester DeKoster, in his book, Work, the Meaning of Your Life, defines work as “the form in which we make ourselves useful to others and thus to God.”  He explains, “Culture and civilization don’t just happen.  They are made to happen and keep happening by work—by God, the Holy Spirit, through our work.”  He poses the question of what would happen if everyone quit working and answers, “Civilized life quickly melts away.  Food vanishes from the store shelves, gas pumps dry up, streets are no longer patrolled, and fires burn themselves out. Communication and transportation services end and utilities go dead. Those who survive at all are soon huddled around camp fires, sleeping in tents and clothed in rags.  The difference between barbarism and culture is, simply, work.  As seeds multiply themselves into harvest, so work flowers into civilization.”  

DeKoster supports his view of work by relying on the Parable of the Last Judgment. (Matthew 25:31-46)  While this parable is usually considered to be about the universal judgment of all people taking into account how they have loved and served others, DeKoster contends that Jesus is talking not only about specific people who are in need, but also about providing food, drink, clothing, shelter, healthcare and other needs to society [creation] at large. This involves all the basic occupations that make up civilization.   He says, “The fabric of civilization, like all fabrics is made up of countless tiny threads—each thread, the work of someone.” 

All work that contributes to the production of goods and services for others, unless immoral, is part of God’s plan for creation.  As the parable says, our reward (inheriting the kingdom) was prepared for us “from the foundation of the world.”  Thus, work has always been a part of God’s plan for his creation.  What surprises people in the parable is that in working at providing the basic necessities for others they are serving God himself. 

Like the people in the parable, we may be surprised that in doing our work we, too, are serving God.  In working as an attorney for most of my career, I did not consider early on that my work was serving God, but it was indeed a “thread in the larger fabric of civilization” arising out of God’s creation.  My summer jobs in high school and college of serving on a road asphalt crew and a laborer in a cement plant were also “threads” making up the larger fabric of civilization.  

God calls us to love him and one another. (Luke 10:27) He calls us to be holy as he is holy. (1Peter 1:15) He also calls us to work and take care of our thread in the fabric of civilization arising from his creation. 

Do you realize that you are serving God in your work?

Thorns of Busyness

“Those sown among thorns…are the people who hear the word, but worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things intrude and choke the word, and it bears no fruit.” (Mark 4:18-19)

In explaining the Parable of the Sower, Jesus says the seed is the word of God.  Some seed falls among the thorns, is choked, and bears no fruit.  Jesus explains that there are many kinds of thorns – worries, ambition, wealth, recognition, position, possessions and busyness, to name a few. 

Busyness, as much any other circumstance, makes the word in many of us unfruitful.  We rush to get dressed in the morning and have our breakfast before we rush to work.  At work, there is often more to do than the time available, so we rush from one task to another.  After work, we rush to take our kids to practice or a sporting event.  We then rush home for dinner because we have a meeting after dinner at church, school or some other place, or we need to help the children with their homework, or we have a brief case full of work.  

Even when we are not in fact being rushed, we have a sense of being rushed.   

All of this rushing crowds out God. Intimacy with him is sacrificed.  The noise of busyness keeps us from hearing the whisper of the Holy Spirit and understanding the Spirit’s call each day.  Notice that Jesus says the outcome is that the word in us becomes unfruitful.  The rich guidance of the word goes unused.  Jesus’ desire for us is just the opposite – “I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit, fruit that will last.” (John 15:16)  

Life will always have its demands.  Do we let these demands choke out God’s word and presence in us, or do we invite him to join us in their midst?  I used to pray a lot in hallways and elevators as I went from one meeting to another, acknowledging God’s presence and asking him to go before me.  There seemed to be more fruit when I did and less when I didn’t. 

God’s presence is available to us in the midst of our busyness.  Offer up your schedule to him at the beginning of each day.  Remember his words, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)

Does busyness choke out your relationship with God – spending time with him in prayer, reading scripture and seeking his will in your lives? 

Do We value the Holy Spirit?

“’No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’ – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” (1 Co. 2:9-10 NIV)

St. Paul says that no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God, but in the Holy Spirit, we may come to understand what God has freely given us – words taught not by human wisdom, but by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. 

In contrast, St. Paul also says that the person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to them, and they cannot understand them because they must be spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. 2: 14)

The Holy Spirit gives me a sense of belonging to God – a feeling of security, knowing that the God of all creation is my Father. He is not distant and out of reach.  He has made himself available to me by becoming one of us through his son, Jesus, the Messiah.  I can see how much he loves me by how he sacrificed his life for me through the tortuous death of Roman crucifixion.  His Spirit gives me the desire to overcome my selfish nature, and love and serve my wife, family and others as much as I am inclined serve myself. 

The Holy Spirit helps me to understand that I am to be a good steward of the responsibilities and circumstances in my life, including family, work, and relationships with others.  He has taught me to have courage and trust in God when faced with the life threatening illness of cancer, the family challenge of a child with an intellectual disability, and circumstances that threaten a presumed career path.

The Spirit gives us knowledge and understanding in our perspectives, conduct, and relationships.  He enables us to see the natural order of God’s creation.  Some people see conflict between science and faith, but the Spirit shows us that science is simply the discovery of the mysteries of God’s creation.

How remarkable!  Who can equal God’s love for us and the gift of the Holy Spirit which is our enabler in love, wisdom, and truth?   

I once read that the contrast between living life in the fullness of the Holy Spirit and not doing so is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Jesus said, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”  (Luke 11:13)

As we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost this week, are you experiencing the personal presence of God the Father and God the Son as enabled by the Holy Spirit?  If not, ask God to release the power of the Holy Spirit in you.  It will change your life.