A Passion for God’s House

“For zeal for your house has consumed me.”   (King David, Psalm 69:9)

St-Patricks-Cathedral

I love this image of the St Patrick’s Cathedral standing between tall sky-scrapers in New York City:  a sanctuary for God in a busy, godless city.  Here the broken-hearted can find their Comforter and the oppressed their Deliverer.  Here the lonely can meet their Friend, the sinner can find Mercy and the troubled can find Peace. Here New Yorkers can escape the business and noise of the city and hear the still voice of God. And here the Creator of the universe can meet his beloved creatures and receive his rightful worship.  This is a church – the House of God.  And this image reminds me of a sermon I heard in 2002 by Fred May – a message that has not left my heart.[i]

The House of God had such a prominent place in the heart of king David amidst the business of his demanding life.  This beloved shepherd-king of Israel was a general of an active army, the ruler of a vastly expanding kingdom, a husband of several wives and a father of many children.  David was a brilliant architect, a skilful musician, songwriter and poet, as well as a prophet.  David’s life was not free from disappointment and pain: his childhood was marked by paternal negligence and sibling rivalry; his youth was celebrated by heroism which caused him to be hunted down and exiled by a jealous monarch; he buried (at least) three of his own children; and he experienced severe betrayal during the revolt lead by his own son Absalom who sought the crown.  But David was not without fault either: the Scriptures clearly record moments of rage and pride, an adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, as well as David’s passive fatherhood which lead to violent incest, murder and eventually the revolt lead by his son Absalom.

But amidst these moral and ethical failures David was “a man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22) – why?  This phrase from the famous Shepherd-psalm reveals why: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (Psalm 23:4-6).   Although this iconic king had the affection and even heroic worship of the people, the respect of both his army and his enemies, all the wealth and pleasures he could dream of, David had a zealous passion for the House of God more than anything this world could offer (Psalm 69:9; compare John 2:17).  Especially during times of hardship, during his days of exile from Israel, David would long for the comfort and security he experienced alongside other worshipers in the House of God.  And that was the key to David’s enduring legacy.

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David really experienced the house of God as a special place where he met with God – alongside other believers.  What do the Psalms reveal of his experience in God’s house?

First, we read that David experienced something special in the House of God (although it was a tent in his days!) –  he experienced favour (a benevolent attitude) before God and mercy (undeserved goodness) from God towards him.  [Psalm 5:7]

Secondly, David experienced real security and strength in God’s House [Psalm 27:4-6]. While hiding in the wilderness, in caves from King Saul David longed to be in God’s House – because there in God’s presence he felt safe and secure.

Thirdly David associated the House of God with abundance of provision [Psalm 36:7-8].  In the presence of God there is no lack, and in the House of God there is always enough for the one who is hungry.  The house of God was – and is – always a place where the poor get helped with practical provision, displaying the gracious generosity of God.

Fourthly, for David the House of God was a place of fellowship and friendship – a place where deep bonds were formed in the presence of God [Psalm 55:12-14].  In Psalm 55 David laments in anguish how he had been betrayed by Ahithophel, his friend and wise advisor who had defected to Absalom’s insurgence.  But we read that the worse part of the betrayal for David was that they “used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house [they] walked in the throng.” (verse 14).

The fifth thing we learn about David’s observation of those who love the House of God is how they live a long, healthy and productive life as recorded in Psalm 92:12-15:

The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”

I know several old people who love God and His House, and although they grow old but their spirits remain young.  They remain joyful and friendly, full of life and faith.  Truly, God renews their youth!

The sixth thing we note in Psalm 122 is that David and his decedents remained faithful to the House of God for the goodwill of the nation; i.e. their worship of God in the House of God resulted in God’s blessing on their kingdom.  The same remains true today: to see the Kingdom of God come and extend in our nation, our devotion should be to the House of God.

Lastly we read how David loved the house of God because it was God’s Home – a resting place for God [Psalm 132] – a place where His name was revered, where He could receive the worship due to Him.  A place where people could meet him away from the business of everyday life.  David knew that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1), and that God fills the whole expanse with His presence.  But although God is omnipresent, His House is the one place that is set aside for Him – a place that is sanctified for Him and his worship.  “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations” (Romans 2:24), yet in his House, among His people, he is revered.  It is His “resting place.”

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This passion for God’s house kept the shepherd-king up at night, especially once his wars had ceased, his enemies were conquered and he was crowned king over Israel, ruling from his beautiful palace in Jerusalem.  One night he called Nathan the prophet to share his burden and dream to build God a Temple – a structure which will host and display the greatness and glory of God: Now when [David] lived in his house and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, he said to Nathan the prophet, ‘See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent…’” (2 Samuel 7:1-2)  The Lord’s reply was so telling of his honor for David’s love for the House of God; God said that because David had it in his heart to build Him a house, he will reward him with the following (2 Samuel 7:9-16):

  • A great name for David.
  • Rest from his enemies.
  • God will build David a house (legacy).
  • David’s children will reign.
  • God will instruct David’s children and take care of them.
  • Goodness towards David’s offspring.
  • An eternal kingship (fulfilled in his descendent Jesus the Christ).

And the Scriptures reveal that these all came to pass; although God did not permit David to build God’s temple because of his reputation of war and bloodshed, God clearly honoured and rewarded David’s passion for his House, amidst all his business and success.

But God is no respecter of persons – how he honoured David because of his love for God’s house, so he has honoured countless others who “had it in their heart to build God a house”.

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Amidst the business of life, the terrors of our times and the delights this world offers, what priority does God’s house – the assembly of his people – have in your heart?  When you go through hardships or when you can’t fall asleep at night, does your flights of fantasy take you into the house of God where God’s presence meets God’s people in worship? Can you pray with this psalmist?

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.  Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.  Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”

[Sons of Korah, Psalm 84:1-4,10]

[i] Fred May of the principle pastor of Shofar Christian Church in Stellenbosch, South Africa – www.shofaronline.org

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A call to courage

Our world is scared, and increasingly so. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US today according to the National Institute of Mental Health affecting one third of the North American population, with a staggering 37% and 50% increase in occurrence among children (ages 4-10 and 11—19) over the last decade. It is estimated that anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, nearly one third of the country’s total mental health bill.

But the cost of anxiety is not limited to medical bills.  The fear of terrorism has caused an arming 114 percent increase in the US defense budget in the last 13 years, which would total about $586.5 billion in 2016 (by far the greatest in the world). In addition the global security technology and services market which is expected to total $86 billion this year.

Our world is a scary place.  Our society is characterized by a sense of anxiety and vulnerability, daily fueled by images of terror and rumors of impending disaster. But we are not the first generation passing through these shadows of uncertainty, uproars and unrests. Like the generations before us we need to overcome the urge to panic.

This is a call to courage. It’s not the time to be anxious, to be intimidated, to succumb to terror. As we see the climate is changing, the shadows drawing longer, we need to look back and find courage from the accounts of others that have navigated similar moments in history. During Nero’s reign Paul urged the anxious, persecuted believers to look into the the Scriptures for “learning… encouragement… comfort… [and] hope” (Romans 15:4). And what examples of courage does the Scripture not have!

A Call to Courage

Abraham left all he knew for promise from God in his spirit.  Later he pursued five kings with their armies to save his nephew Lot from slavery. Noah, a preacher of righteousness had courage to confront a perverse generation and build the ark amidst their mockery for 120 years. Young David stood up to Goliath the giant.  Joshua and Caleb were not intimidated by the giants in walled cities and trained armies that occupied their Promised Land, patiently waited forty years and in their old age lead the nation to possess this land.  Daniel walked into a den of lions, and his three friends into the fiery oven because they would refused to bow to another god.  He did falter to fear but told Darius straight-up “God found you too light!” Moses confronted the terrifying Pharaoh demanding release of all his slaves, and then led the entire nation into.  Queen Ester risked her life when she approached the Persian king to save her generation from annihilation.  Nehemiah did the same to rebuild the holy city.  Gideon and his small army walked unarmed into a Midianite camp with 15’000 soldiers. Samson single-handedly took on 1’000 Philistine warriors. Jehoshaphat led the whole nation into the dessert against three massive armies. Elisha was besieged by the entire Syrian army but walked right up to them and led them into siege.  Elijah challenged all the Baal prophets to a public showdown asking “Who is the real God?!”  Jonah walked into the most violent city of his day as a foreigner, demanding repentance and submission to his God.  Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Malachi, Amos, Hosea, Nathan and John the Baptist willingly chose a life of mockery, poverty and pain as they confronted kings, rebuked hypocrisy, and exposed the injustice of the day.

Jesus, son of God, left the comfort of heaven, the honor of the throne, the worship of the angels and the power of divinity to enter a life of pain, poverty and persecution – ultimately to suffer brutally and die shamefully. All because “God so loved the world.”  And his courage set the pattern for his followers, as we see in the first beatings of Peter and John, the first martyr Stephen, the hardships of the Apostle Paul history of the church throughout the ages.

How do we grow in courage?

In Joshua 1:1-9 we see the Lord giving a pep-talk to the new leader called to lead the Hebrews to occupy their land inhabited by Giants in secure cities.  We learn much from this instruction about how to “take heart” when times are tough.[i]

Courage must rise in the face of fear.  There is no need for courage when everything is plain sailing, when all is as it should be.  But in the threat of pain of discomfort, loss or death, when the natural inclination is to hide or run away, that’s the que to take heart!  The Lord told Joshua to be courageous because the situation was terrifying.  A sense of fear must trigger the response to courage.

Courage has a cause.  When there is no need, no urgency, no mandate, there is no need for courage.  When one puts his hand into a lit furnace for no reason he is rightly labelled a fool.  But a woman who runs into a burning house to save her daughter is a hero.  Joshua had to be courageous to fulfill his mandate.  Bravery is called upon when the fight is worth it.  Courage is needed to uphold the righteous purposes of God.

Courage is gained in the knowledge of God.  Joshua was told to not forget “The Book of the Law” which Moses left Israel.  Today we have it as the first five books in our Bible. Why would that help Joshua to grow in courage?  Because it records – from Creation to Exodus – the accounts of God’s wisdom, power and loving faithfulness with his people. Joshua would be “encouraged” every time he reads how faithfully and powerfully God had preserved and delivered his people in desperate times past.  Thus courage is gained as we become convinced and get reminded of God’s power and might – that truly “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).  Courage grows as we learn from these accounts who God is: that God is good, righteous, faithful and merciful.  This revelation of God’s power and character is preserved in Scripture as records of his interaction and decrees, so we get to know God and are encouraged as we read these accounts of divine intervention (Romans 15:4).  Indeed, but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits.” (Daniel 11:32)

Courage is gained in the assurance of God’s presence.  The Lord encouraged Joshua with the promises of his personal presence.  More specifically “as I was with Moses” – thus Joshua was promised the same intimacy with the Lord, the same faithfulness in preservation and the same powerful interventions which Moses experienced as he lead these people.  What an encouraging promise!  The Lord made that same promise of companionship his ascension (Matthew 28:20), and that companionship we experience in the empowering presence of His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:11). We grow in courage as we grow in revelation of the Lord’s personal presence, declaring with David The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118:6)

Courage is infectious. The Lord encouraged Joshua.  Before these words of encouragement Joshua was intimidated and anxious.  But the words of encouragement put the necessary strength into his heart to go on and fulfill his mission. That’s why we are repeatedly called to “encourage one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) – literally “put courage and strength into the heart of another”.  We get encouraged through deliberate effort to be built up, but also indirectly as we see others or hear their stories as they continue courageously amidst hardship, thinking “If another can do it, so can I.”  Courage is infectious, as we can see in this video

Read here how to Encourage One Another (https://walklikejesus.net/2015/09/10/encourage-one-another/)

Courage is a choice. The Lord’s repeated commands of courage implies a choice to succumb to fear and intimidation or to take heart and continue with his commission.  We either choose to allow fear to dictate our actions, or we choose to allow courage to reign in our hearts. So Jesus told his disciples – as he is saying to us today “Let not your heart be troubled…believe in me” because “In the world you will have trouble. But TAKE HEART; I have overcome the world.” (John 14:1; 16:33)  These exhortations from the Lord demand a response, a resolve to not allow fearful situations to “trouble your heart” and dictate your actions. So when there’s a choice to fight or flight, choose to fight and persevere.

Add courage to your faith

Life in the kingdom of God is not for the faint-hearted – it never was, it never will be. The kingdom suffers violence” said Jesus (Matthew 11:12). Our world is unfriendly and uncertain. But so it was in the days of Jesus and the Apostles. Their society was oppressed by the Roman army and heavily taxed by Caesar, plagued by perpetual civil unrest and terrorism, divided by extreme classism. For that reason Peter exhorted the church to add to your faith COURAGE (2 Peter 1:5). Mere saving faith does not make you fit or fruitful to fulfill your mandate. Our mandate is clear: peacemakers, Kingdom-bringers, heralds of the Good News.

So “don’t be anxious about tomorrow…” (Matt 6:34), don’t live a life pacified by fear or paralyzed by what can go wrong. Fear steals your joy and taps your strength.  Reflect on this truth: if God is for us, who can be against us!?  Then look up, shape up, sign up and step up. TAKE HEART, finish the job, then we can go Home.

[i] Note the incredible similarity in form of the appeals to courage to complete the divine mandate with assurance of the Lord’s power and presence in the following texts: Solomon’s charge to build the temple (1 Chronicles 28:20), Joshua’s command for conquest (Joshua 1:1-9), the disciple’s commission (Matthew 28:18-20), the angel’s warning about Paul’s shipwreck and appointment with Cesar (Acts 27:24-26) and the Corinthian’s church charge to not fear death but continue in their faith (1 Corinthians 15:57-8).

 

 

Church membership – who cares!?

“I’m attending this church (for now) – who cares about a name on a list?”

Formal church membership seem foreign and even impersonal to our current generation of passionate Christ-followers.  “To sign on the dotted line” seem so far removed from the deep spiritual relationships that our generation yearn for.  When conversation move away from passionate participation towards paper partnerships attendees become skeptical and scatter.  There is a general suspicion of anything formal or contractual.  And not without reason!

Off course we must note that the contemporary wariness of church membership is not only due to the fallible history of the Church; our generation holds a general resentment towards institutions and a skepticism in leadership at large.  It seems as though the bigger the institution, the more structured a partnership or the longer a commitment is, the greater our generation will stay clear of involvement.  This growing resentment towards institutions is also the reason for couples – even increasingly Christians – who do not see a need to get married formally.

So we dislike big, structured, impersonal and organized – we like small, intimate, personal, and organic.  We associate authentic spiritual life with small and intimate.  But a quick read of the New Testament reveals that the early church was big, very structured, and organized – yet very personal.  And it seems clear that membership in the early church was normative – in fact, the New Testament seem to associate Christianity with formal church membership.  Consider the following points.

  1. Accountability assumes membership

In the intimate setting where Paul greeted the elders of the Ephesian churches for good, he exhorted them to “pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).  Paul’s instruction to “care for the church of God” implied a very specific group of blood-bought believers whom the elders knew and had to protect against “savage wolves…with destructive heresies” (see verse 29).

Peter’s letter to a group of scattered congregations gave a similar instruction to elders who ought to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you… those in your charge” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  These elders had to oversee and lead by example “those in their charge” – a very specific group of people allotted to them by God.  Each elder had to watch over the members in his flock.  This was a clearly defined group of believers, i.e. members in a congregation.

The most sobering and challenging verse on this for me personally is Hebrews 13:17 where the apostle writes that leaders have to “keep watch over [their follower’s] souls, as those who will have to give an account.”  The elders of a local church must watch over and account for the members in that congregation before God, implying a relationship of accountability and entrustment – i.e. willing membership.

  1. Leadership assumes membership

Hebrews 13:17 also assumes that the congregation knows who their leaders are whom they ought to “obey” and “submit to” – the relationships were clearly defined.   So too Paul’s instruction to in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 shows that New Testament congregations had formal membership and leadership: there was something like a “those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord” who deserves respect.

  1. Church discipline and assumes membership

Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on how to regulate sensitive matters in church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17) assumes membership: if an offensive act from a fellow believer is not settled in loving confrontation with witnesses present, that person can be brought “to the church” – a clearly defined group of believers who knows this trespassing brother.  As in Jesus’ instruction, Paul instructs that the last resort of church discipline is for a congregation to excommunicate the sinning brother who now is “inside the church” to henceforth be with “those outside” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) – from that moment he is regarded as “an unbeliever” (Matthew 8:17). This act of disassociation, writes John Piper, is not only a clear indication that membership was normative in the early church, but moreover it proves that church membership really means something.  It is a blood-bough, desirable and beneficial privilege for all believers.

  1. “One body” assumes membership

The term “member” for someone being part of a congregation was coined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 in his metaphorical description of the church as the living, interdepend body of Christ, where all the persons in this congregation are “members of the body” (v12).  He argues that a believer cannot say I do not belong to the body” (v15) – it is abnormal for the members to relate tangentially to the rest of the body; it is wrong and unhealthy for a person to not be built on or planted in a local congregation where life is received and given through the sharing of Christ Himself.  Membership was normative in the New Testament; every believer in the Early Church belonged to a local congregation.  Just like the Church globally is the Body of Christ, so too the local church is an expression of the Universal Church.

  1. “Known by your love” assumes membership

Ultimately, Jesus desires for the church to be known by your love for one another” (John 13:35) is only possible within the confines of a clearly defined congregation.  As this love is visibly discerned by outsiders, it reasons that relationships of church members must over time consistently witness acts of   generosity, forgiveness, affection, affirmation and shared life – not mere acts of kindness to passer-by’s.  The visible love among church members is the ultimate witness of our allegiance to Christ (John 13:34-35) and the reality of Christ among us (John 17:21).

Bringing it home

If you hear someone say “church membership – who cares?!” tell that person it is the most fitting question you can ask; membership is all about “who cares for you!”  Church membership is about entrusting someone appointed by God to watch over your soul and care for your needs – someone who must give an account to God for the health of your soul.  Church membership is about committing yourself to a community of believers for mutual accountability and edification – to discipline and be disciplined, to support and be supported, to encourage and be encouraged as you continue to grow in the character of Christ.  Church membership is the environment where we can securely live in vulnerability and mutual care, where love flows freely in generosity and forgiveness, affirmation and affection, radical acceptance and kind correction.  It is in church membership where the life and love of Christ flows and is displayed to the world.

So where do you belong?  Who should give an account for your soul?

From surviving to THRIVING!

“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to THRIVE; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style” ― Maya Angelou (American poet, actress and activist in the American Civil Rights Movement).

Reading through the gospel John, one cannot escape the promise of LIFE, of flourishing and thriving, in Jesus.  Over and over Jesus promises that “I have come that you may have LIFE… and that you may have it in overflow” (eg John 10:10).  In fact, the over-arching identity and mission of Jesus (at least from John’ Gospel) is one of LIFE-GIVER.

Jesus is LIFE.  He said I am THE BREAD OF LIFE (John 6:35), “I am THE LIGHT OF LIFE (John 8:12), “I AM THE DOOR” for the preservation of life and access to life (John 10:9), “I am THE GOOD SHEPHERD” who lays down his life for the sheep, that they may have life (John 10:11), the “I am THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE that “whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live(John 11:25), “I am THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE (John 14:6) and lastly “I am THE VINE” though whom we have access to and power for life, for “apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

I share Mark Hall’s philosophy on this video of Casting Crown’s album THRIVE:

THRIVE in spite of hardships

This promise of LIFE is not defined as an easy life, overflowing with worldly goods and void of suffering.  Jesus did not promise his followers a life void of pain, suffering and difficulty; rather, he promises “In this life you will have trouble” (John 16:33). 

thrive_on_bonsai

The apostles echoed his words when they wrote to the suffering churches “all who desire to live a godly life will be persecuted” (1 Timothy 3:12) and “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you” (1 Peter 4:12).  In essence, the New Testament says “don’t just SURVIVE hardships – THRIVE in spite of it!”  The LIFE Jesus promised is not snuffed out through suffering.

This tree started growing from the remains of a burnt-down cottage.
This tree started growing from the remains of a burnt-down cottage.

THRIVE in spite of lack

It is difficult for us to think that it is possible to THRIVE in spite of financial difficulty. Yet it is true that most of the New Testament Church was really poor, being marginalized and persecuted because of their faith in Christ. Yet the church had power and grew rapidly; they knew to be true what Jesus taught: “life does not consist in the wealth of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

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Just like some plants flourish in the harsh conditions in a dessert, so a LIFE OF THRIVING is not dependent on abundance of wealth or material success.  In fact, neither Jesus nor Paul nor the other apostles had much possessions.

The dessert is full of life and beauty.
The dessert is full of life and beauty.

THRIVE in spite of imperfections

Just as a THRIVING plant may not be void of imperfections, so a THRIVING life is not a perfect, faultless life either.  Paul likened the full LIFE of Christ contained in human imperfections to a fire shining through the cracks of a clay pot that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Our imperfections shows God's glorious life.
Our imperfections shows God’s glorious life.

Thriving therefore is not dependent on worldly comfort, prosperity or perfection.  So, Biblically speaking, how does one move from a life of mere SURVIVING to THRIVING?

  1. A Place to Belong: LIFE flows through receiving and giving love

Using the metaphoric language of a tree, the Psalmist writes “They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the LORD is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”  To THRIVE, one needs to be “planted in the house of the Lord” – to find your space in church community which one calls “home”, a place of belonging.  To THRIVE one has to open your heart to people, and be received into theirs.

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“like a tree planted next to water…”

It’s common to not feel part of a community, to feel like an outside.  But Paul writes that – regardless of our background – Jesus has “made us accepted” into Christ’s beloved community through adoption (Ephesians 1:5-6).  If this remains “cognitive truth” at best we will SURVIVE; but once this adoption and acceptance becomes “realized or incarnated truth”, once we experience the blessedness of unconditional acceptance in the community of love we THRIVE in life.  We thrive in a community where love is evident both in our giving and receiving of one another.

Jesus refers to this THRIVING as the GLORY we share in wherever we living in unity, in harmonious, Christ-centered community. He said to his followers that THRIVING LIFE or GLORY will set us apart from the world, so that we will be recognized as Christ’s followers, sharing in his LIFE (John 17: 21-23).

Thriving in belonging.
Thriving in belonging.

Thriving happens in Christ’s community, in God’s family (Ephesians 3:14-19) within the security of unconditional love and acceptance, and space to grow and be yourself.  A place where there is no need for presence, where we can live in truth.

  1. Community of Truth: LIFE flows where the LIGHT shines

David observed that it is not financial prosperity that causes one to be blessed but rather by “delight in the law of the LORD” leading to a life devoted to its perpetual study and mediation.  He concludes this person “is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalms 1:1-3).   As trees flourish and bear fruit next to a flowing stream, so humans THRIVE in a life devoted to the way God intended – a life directed by “the Law of the Lord”.  The “Law of God” or “Truth” is the manual for how God has ordained life, and the pursuit thereof promises a THRIVING LIFE (James 1:25), although not without opposition or difficulty.

One thing that the “Law of God” (or “Word of God”) does for the sincere reader is to search one’s heart and show what is true and what is false (Hebrews 4:12).  This shows what is dynamic and of God (truth), what is destructive and of the sinful self (selfish ambition), or deceptive and from Satan himself (a lie).  That which is from God causes eternal THRIVING LIFE in self and others; that which is from self or Satan causes death and destruction (James 1:13-17).  The Word of God brings to light the veracity of motives, thoughts and feelings.  It causes one to LIVE in Truth.

Thrive in the Light of Truth.
Thrive in the Light of Truth.

One prospers in the Truth: an environment of honesty without deception, of sincerity without pretense.  Such a community that embrace truth in love cultivates tremendous vigor – it leads to THRIVING LIFE.  Where there is freedom in unconditional acceptance to either confess faithlessness or failure, or to lovingly confront and correct destructive behavior or beliefs so that one’s life may be directed in Truth and be set free to THRIVE (Romans 8:32).

  1. Hope – a reason to LIVE on

As mentioned earlier, a THRIVING LIFE is not void of trials, tribulation or temptation, but rather this resilient life THRIVES in spite of hardships because of hope – the confident expectation that good will come.  Like the tree shoots out its roots, even splitting open solid rock because it follows the scent of water beyond it, so THRIVING in hard times requires the hope of reward.  There must be a reason to push on.  There must be a promise of THRIVING life beyond this hardship.

Press on in hope.
Press on in hope.

Paul was a man that endured much: “imprisoned frequently, in [danger of] death often… five times I received forty stripes minus one, three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness– besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).  But he did not give up, and he did not just settle to SURVIVE, but pressed on to THRIVE in spite of these hardships.  How?   Through hope!  He writes “we do not lose heart… For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).  Paul always kept his eye on the promise of ETERNAL LIFE, not being phased with temporal hardships.  Paul THRIVED on hope.

His life philosophy was that “all things work together for the good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28), and reasoned that “tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2-5). He stressed the fact that this hope is not an empty dream, because already the Holy Spirit is living in the believer as a guarantee of ETERNAL LIFE (Ephesians 1:14) and what he calls “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) – the promise to share in the GLORIOUS LIFE in Christ.  Therefore Paul rejoices in these hardships, because it helps him produce godly character and reminds him long for a life without sin and suffering in Christ’s Kingdom.  He does not want to forfeit that prize by giving up now!

THRIVING amidst hardships means we push on in hardships in faithfulness to God, because we know “He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23) – our perseverance has promise of the prize.  Although itit is much more costly!  To hold on, to break through, to push forward in hope leads to a better LIFE.   THRIVING in hardships requires hope – a clear picture of what the reward for perseverance is.

David writes on hope: “I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” and concludes “wait in the Lord; be of good courage and he will give strength to your heart” (Psalm 27:13-14).

  1. Jesus – the source of LIFE

Earlier we wrote that Jesus us the SOURCE of ENDURING LIFE: He called Himself “THE BREAD OF LIFE” (John 6:35), “THE LIGHT OF LIFE” (John 8:12), “THE DOOR” to LIFE (John 10:9), “THE GOOD SHEPHERD” who preserves and leads us on in LIFE (John 10:11), ” THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE” (John 11:25),  ” THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE” (John 14:6) and “THE [LIFE-GIVING] VINE” (John 15:5).

Jesus is the source of LIFE.  This thriving life is found in Him.  He told his followers to “Abide in me… for apart from me you could do nothing” (John 15:5).  How do we “live” and THRIVE in him?  Simple

Jesus said came that we “may have life abundantly” (John 10:10) – not just life to survive but LIFE in overflow, in excess: THRIVING LIFE.  This LIFE is found as we “abide” or live in Him (John 15:5) – in communion and prayer with Him; as we study his will and live in obedience to his Word (John 15:7); and as we participate and share in his loving community (John 15:12).

thriving_6

A Time to Celebrate

Another year is over.  Another year in which we have experienced the goodness and faithfulness of God.  We have been preserved, blessed and even enriched in so many ways.  This is indeed reason to stop, to gather everyone and celebrate.  It’s a time to set up a memorial stone and exclaim with Samuel “Thus far the Lord has helped us!” (1 Samuel 7:12).

A time for recreation.
A time for recreation.

Celebration is a time of rejoicing a time to look at the good and cherish it.  It is a time where we celebrate and exult.  A time of laughter, music and dancing, a time for relaxing as we deliberately free ourselves of cares and work.  It is a time for joyful recreation and playful interaction.  It is a time away from the ordinary and mundane routine of working and earning so that we can have a time of resting with the intent of restoring and recharging. It is a time to “wait on the Lord [to] renew your strength” (Isaiah 40:31).

A time to reflect and consider how you have grown or waned.
A time to reflect and consider how you have grown or waned.

Celebration is a time of reflection – a time to look in the mirror and with honesty consider the person you have become.  It’s a time to take stock of your life as you consider how you have grown or how you have waned.  In moments like these we review the stewardship of what have been entrusted to us (opportunities, relationships, time and resources) in the light of eternal perspective. This gives opportunity to reprioritize your time and resources in respect to God the Judge of all (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

A time to remember.
A time to remember.

Celebration is a time to remember where you have come from, where you have been and where you are heading.  It’s a time to look back cherish your legacy, and look ahead to embrace your destiny anew.  It’s a time where you look back on the road of life with thankfulness and a time to remember the lessons you have learned.  It’s a time to relive the faithfulness of God in being Emanuel, God with us.  This leads to a time of and realigning the path of your life as you follow the Lord your the Shepherd (Psalm 23:1-4).

A time to reconnect.
A time to reconnect.

Celebration is a time for relating – a time to look around you and enjoy the fact that you are not alone in this journey of life.  It’s a time where your identity is not found in your work, your failure or your success, but in your belonging.  You are accepted for being you, celebrated as a gift from God.  This leads to a time of reconnecting hearts around the table of God our Father (Ephesians 3:14-17).

A time for recognition.
A time for recognition.

Celebration is a time for recognition where we look at the people around us with gratitude and humble regard for their contributions and efforts.  A time we “give honor to whom it is due” (Romans 12:7).  It is a time where we reaffirm the value and relationships of those among which the Lord has placed us.

A time for reverence.
A time for reverence.

Celebration is a time for reverence – a time to look up and render yourself in worship to God as the source of all goodness and necessary grace.  It’s also a time of yielding yourself in serving the God who created you for his pleasure.  A time where you resign yourself to the purpose, position and path that God has assigned for you; “this is your reasonable service to God” (Romans 12:1-2).

Invite family, friends and neighbors to celebrate with you!
Invite family, friends and neighbors to celebrate with you!

So do as our Biblical example encourage us – regardless of our circumstances or emotions – lets’s celebrate!  Invite your family, friends and neighbors, saying “Rejoice with me!”  (Luke 15:6,9)  Gather, feast with music and food and dancing and the exchanging of gifts as we celebrate and display the goodness and faithfulness of God our Savior. So let us rejoice and be glad – this is  the season of celebration! (Refer Psalm 118:24; Revelations 19:7; 1 Chronicles 16:1-3; Esther 9:16-19; Nehemiah 8:9-12).

Accountability in friendship

During a relationship seminar some time ago, my wife was asked why she felt safe to marry me.  She answered that my close friends gave her assurance for two reasons: I had the ability to maintain long-term relationships, and secondly she felt safe because if I lose my mind one day, she knows my friends will bring me back on track – she is not alone in our marriage.  I smiled that day realizing that my friendship with these men will not only preserve my marriage, but also my faith, character and reputation since they will call me to account to my promises, beliefs and values.

Accountability friendships acts as an anchor for a ship, preventing one from drifting slowly with the current of sensuality or heresy by keeping you on course, or like that voice in your car’s GPS that tells you have missed a turn and helps you to recalculate a route to your original destination.  Like that voice, accountability friends will not keep quite until you return to the original path.  But accountability relationships can do much more than that voice.

An accountability friendship acts as a GPS, keeping you on route.
An accountability friendship acts as a GPS, keeping you on route.

I cherish accountability.  Being in ministry for more than 12 years I learned of so many godly, anointed people who fall into sin or go astray in some strange path or get derailed because of some immorality or harness of heart, having no-one to call them to account. On the contrary, I have also seen marriages on the brink of divorce turned around because friends intervened – holding the couple not only accountable their vows but also to their hope, faith and values.  And this intervention is necessary every so often since both seduction and pain make one act hastily and irresponsible, steering one of course.   Adam and Eve, our perfect parents, show us that no-one is immune to seduction or deception  – we all need someone to speak into our lives.

Sadly, accountability is not popular or easy in our intensely individualistic society.  We value autonomy and cherish privacy and the freedom of choice above everything else. “It is none of your business!” and “I have the right to be happy!”  are the creeds of our time.  To make matters worse our society also values tolerance and therefore have a distaste for confrontation.  Thus we tend to keep quiet about matters that might ruin our friends’ lives.

What does it mean to be accountable?  It literally means “to give account” like an income and expense statement, or to be answerable for what was entrusted to you.  Phrases such as “bring into the light” or simply “to make known” are synonymous to accountability.

Accountability is not a strange concept in our society.
Accountability is not a strange concept in our society.

The concept of accountability is not foreign to our society.  For example, someone will willingly submit himself to an alcohol rehabilitation center makes himself answerable to the staff of the facility for the professed desire to be free from the substance and it’s destructive effects on his life.  How?  He gives permission for the staff of the facility to do random and scheduled urine tests and inspections, and invites accountability questions in the hope to be delivered from the addiction.  Or one who signs up for WeighLess receives a prescribed diet and is answerable for compliance to the diet, while progress is measured with scheduled weighing.  An athlete must give account to her coach for her adherence to a summer exercise program and performance is periodically measured in accordance to her goals for the season.  Students who enroll for a course get tested academically in exams.  The store manager, human resource manager and finance manager give account of what is entrusted to them both formally in audits, and informally in meetings.  In these spheres our society know the value of accountability; it is not a strange concept for us.

For the Christian, at conversion (and more specifically at baptism and public confession of our faith) we sign up for a life of allegiance to Christ our Lord.  This is called a life of discipleship: a commitment to be trained in and live a life based on the teachings of Jesus, as well as participation in his mission in this world.  On of this we must give account – today, as Paul demonstrated when he confronted Peter for “not acting in line with truth of the Gospel” (Galatians 2:12-14) and when Christ returns to judge the world.  And to that end accountability relationships must keep us on track.

Accountability in practice

Ultimately, each of us will give an account of himself before God (Romans 14:12).  This includes both our public actions and personal thoughts and desires (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).  The result will be rewards for the good and punishment for the wicked (Revelation 22:12).  We cannot escape this Day of Accountability (or Judgment) – our actions and inner thoughts and motives will be clear to all.  It is with this Day in mind that the apostles urge us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) and “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).

God appoints leaders to whom we must give account (Romans 13:1-2; Hebrews 4:13) – this includes parents of children (Psalm 127:3-5).  These leaders must also give account of your soul to God (Hebrews 13:17) as Jesus did at the night of his arrest saying: while I was with them, I kept them in your name… I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except [Judas]” (John 17:11-12).

But this concerned accountability of one another is not only the responsibility of leaders.  Each of us should willingly give an account to one another – to “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7).   We do so because we we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2, 5:16-20).  Therefore accountability requires honesty confession (1 John 1:6-9; James 5:15-20; see also Colossians 3:9; Ephesians 4:25) – an honest revealing of our thoughts, desires, habits and behavior, including confession of sins and failure (James 5:15).  The response of the hearer must be loving correction and support in restoration of the ones who are caught in sin (Galatians 6:1-2).

Similarly, each of us are tasked to be your “brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9) – meaning to hold one another accountable for our behavior seeing as we ought to “be doers of the word” (James 1:22) and “walk worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10; compare Ephesians 4:1), meaning to representing Him well.  We do this to help one another walk in integrity – to ensure our confession and actions line up.

Accountability requires encouragement and exhortation (1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 3:13) to stay faithful to Christ in allegiance to him and not drift away (Hebrews 2:1-4), to continue to grow spiritually (Hebrews 6:1-2) and to faithfully continue doing what the Lord had commanded (2 Timothy 4:2,5).  We are instructed to “consider how to spur one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24).  From this text it is clear that we focus not on sins, but on growth in Christ-like love and goodness.  And this takes creative thoughts.

Accountability also requires admonishing and correcting one another (Colossians 3:16) where there is a sin or character weakness to “shape the face [read character] of a friend” (Proverbs 27:17).  This must be done in wisdom (Jude 1:23), “in gentleness” (Galatians 6:1-2) and “in love so we all can grow up in every way into …Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).  But is must be done!  Do not avoid speaking of the sins.

Elements of accountability friendship

An accountability road map (or framework).
An accountability road map (or framework).

A lifestyle of accountability requires a loving, trusting relationship. This does not need to be a “fuzzy warm friendship” – simply a relationship where two (or more) friends agree to pursue Christ-likeness and agree to walk together (Amos 3:3). This leads to a discipline of confession and a culture where we ask each other what the Lord is doing in one another’s life or what is the state of our finances, calendar, heart, mind, and relationships.   A commitment to transparent and truthful conversations.  These conversations will result in applauding, admonishing and affirmation, or said in another way complimenting, comforting and correcting.  The most difficult of these three is the humility for correction.  Being open to receive correction means we must maintain a humble, teachable mind (1 Peter 3:8), not despising corrective counsel (Proverbs 25:12).  But this must always be coupled with encouragement.  The aim is always to help one another grow in the likeness, knowledge and obedience of Christ our Lord.

Suggested accountability questions

In closing I suggest some questions to use in your accountability friendships.  Use them, tweak them, add or replace according to the needs in the relationship.

  • Devotions: “Did you pray daily and read your Bible daily this week? What is God saying?”
  • Thoughts: “What habitual thoughts are worrisome to you? Tell me about your day-dreams.”
  • Conduct: “In the last week, was your behavior in any way not worthy of the Lord?”
  • Obedience: “What has the Lord commanded you to do? When will you obey Him in this command?”
  • Temptations: “In which areas are you being tempted most these days? Let’s pray for you.”
  • Witness: “To whom have you shared your testimony this week? Tell me about it! Who did you invite to church or small group?”
  • Relationships: “Tell me about your key relationships – in which ways are your growing?”
  • Fellowship: “What did you experience during your Church and cell attendance this week?”

Find a friend (of the same gender preferably) and invite him or her to ask you these questions, and see how the relationship grows in purpose and godly intimacy.

One last thought: who would the Lord ask you about like when he asked Cain “Where is you brother/ sister…?” (Genesis 4:9).  Who will call you “brothers-keeper?”

Never give in!

Sir Ernest Shackleton

Men wanted: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton.” 5000 men responded to this blunt advertisement posted in London newspapers January 13 1914, applying for the Imperial Trans- Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton selected a crew of 28 who proved to be optimistic, patient and courageous – the minimum requirements he sought for in a man who boarded a ship with him.  They set sail from London in the ship aptly named “Endurance” on the first day of August 1914 and stopped over at the whaling station on South Georgia for fresh supplies.  After a month they departed for the Antarctic on December the 5th for one of the most grueling adventures undertaken by man, unaware that they would not touch land again for another 497 days.  On return to England three years later Shackleton published the account in his book South in 1919, documenting the journey, events and experiences of their expedition, including the following five legendary survival accounts.

Due to an unusually cold winter the ship entered pack ice much sooner than expected.  Just one day’s journey from the Antarctic the Endurance got stuck in pack-ice on 18 January 1915, drifting gradually away from the South Pole for ten months with the ice until the ship tipped and was crushed to pieces on October 27, 1915.

Endurance slowly breaking through pack ice
Endurance slowly breaking through pack ice
Endurance stuck in polar ice
Endurance stuck in polar ice
Endurance crushed by pack ice
Endurance crushed by pack ice

The men saved what they could and drifted for another five months on the ice until the ice started melting and the food became scarce.  On 31 March 2016 Shackleton woke up from a soft crackling sound to find that the ice beneath him split in two; he instinctively reached his hand to grab the sleeping bag of the man sharing his tent just as he was slipping into that icy, black water. During the ice-splitting they were also separated from their life rafts for some time but they managed to retrieve it again.  The next day he gave the command to board the three life boats.

The life-saving achievement was the harrowing journey through the Weddell sea to a rock called Elephant Island, 100 miles in the three small life boats, navigating one of the roughest seas with 60 foot waves blown by gale-force winds.  The three boats had to be dragged on top ice floes at night to rest.  They managed to reach Elephant Island, and eventually found a suitable camping terrain.

Boats on Elephant Island
Boats on Elephant Island

Their third legendary survival story started on 24 August when Shackleton and five others boarded the small 22ft life boat called the James Caird  and made way for South George, from where they departed about 500 days earlier 800 miles away. (That is the distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg!)  After a grueling 17 day journey in the stormiest sea, navigating by dead reckoning with a compass and sextant only with merely four sightings of the sun, the six men reached the island exhausted.  This is still considered one of the greatest boating achievements ever.

Crew boards James Caird for South Georgia
Crew boards James Caird for South Georgia
Landing on South Georgia
Landing on South Georgia

The next survival feat was equally impressive, born from necessity as the men landed on the wrong side of the island.  To get to the whaling station for help and rescue of their friends Shackleton, captain Frank Worsley and second officer Tom Crean began to cross the ice-bound mountain tops of South Georgia  – never before attempted, including the 9000ft Mount Paget.  During their 36 hour ordeal without any rest they travelled across two snowfields, four glaciers and three mountain ranges: all of these unmapped and life threatening.  The last bit of their journey, being severely fatigued, dehydrated and shivering, Shackleton lowered his two friends down a partially frozen waterfall before abseiling down himself and waking the harbor master at Stormness whaling station, asking for help.

Panoramic view of South Georgia
Panoramic view of South Georgia

Lastly, the survival and rescue of the 22 men marooned on Elephant Island for more than 137 days is commendably in itself.  They used the two life boats to construct a hut of sorts  to stay warm. Due to the roughness of the sea it took four attempts by Shackleton and his men to rescue them, only managing to reach them with the steam boat Yelcho on 30 August 1917, two years and one month after their departure from England.

The Chillean steamer Yelcho
The Chillean steamer Yelcho

 

This story of endurance and courage is inspirational – in spite of the failure to cross the Antarctic – because Sir Earnest Shackleton succeed to bring all 28 the men home safely; they endured and survived the impossible together.  Part of their survival had to do with what Shackleton took with them as their ship Endurance was crushed by the pack ice: in spite of the lack of space in the three life rafts he instructed that they take a rugby ball, the gramophone as well as the big Bible.  He insisted that they daily laughed together, told stories and read the Bible together as encouragement in hope, daily played sports together, and daily sang together. For him, humour, story, song, playing and prayer was keys to endurance – and it proved true.

Football on ice
Football on ice
Gramophone for the penguins
Gramophone for the penguins

Shackleton was a God-fearing man who lived and lead though this ordeal with Godly courage and persistence.  Looking at his example of endurance, and comparing it with examples and teachings from the Bible, what can we apply to navigate through our own hardships with “Endurance”?

(1) Comfort of Scripture

As mentioned above, Shackleton ordered his men to rescue the ships’ big Bible and take it with them on their journey to safety, knowing that the Scriptures are in part a compilation of God’s miraculous deliverance and preservation of people in desperate circumstances, as were they.  Their faith in God’s salvation from this seemingly hopeless situation would be stirred as they read they reflect on the accounts of God’s awesome deliverance of individuals and communities as recorded in the Bible.

New Testament Authors encouraged their suffering communities to look at Old Testament characters (as well as their leader’s examples of steadfastness) to find strength to press on in faithfulness to God.  Paul reminded the persecuted church in Rome that whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  James encouraged the poor, persecuted church in Jerusalem to “consider the blessed who remained steadfast” with special reference to Job and the Old Testament prophets (James 5:10-11).  The author of Hebrews encouraged his suffering readers to “consider [Jesus] who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (Hebrews 12:3).  Thus they all pointed to the exemplary lives recorded in Scriptures for encouragement during difficulty.

The history of God’s faithfulness in Scripture comforts us during hardships because we see that we are not alone in hardship – many have been there; and the Biblical accounts testify to us that God is present during suffering to strengthen and preserve,  and that he is willing and able to save.   Thus the Scriptures comfort us and stirs our hope and faith in God.

(2) Companionship in community

Shackleton knew that for the 28 men to survive this ordeal, they should not just live in community, but also practice community.   That’s why he commanded that every one participate in four group activities daily: they eat together, play sports together, pray and reflect on Scripture together, as well as sing, tell stories and laugh together.  These moments of togetherness brought great encouragement and camaraderie amidst the protracted stressful times.  He understood and articulated that for the group to survive, each individual needed to survive.  If no-one gives up, the group endures.

In relation to their survival and community, I find C.S. Lewis’ quote on friendship quite fitting: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival.”   For the crew stranded in Antarctic, their community was a reason to endure in itself; their companionship gave both motive for and meaning to their survival.

(3) Celebration of life

Shackleton wrote in his journal during their long winter drifting on the pack-ice “As we clustered round the blubber stove, with the acrid smoke blowing in our faces, we were quite a cheerful company…Life was not so bad. We ate our evening meal while the snow drifted down from the surface of the glacier and our chilled bodies grew warm.” They were thankful for what they had; their companionship, warm food and their survival was reason to laugh.

Going through life with the optimistic perception of “glass half full” makes endurance possible, and life so much more pleasant.  Jesus put it this way (referring to money in the context of a financially oppressed Judea) The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”  (Matthew 6:22-23).  Shackleton lead his men on in “light-filled eyes”, celebrating what they had amidst a cold, seemingly hopeless situation.

Paul encouraged the persecuted church in Philippi to do the same, to emulate his discipline of focusing on the good and praiseworthy, so that “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds” (Philippians 4:6-8). Instead of becoming anxious about trying circumstances he instructed them to pray about their situation, but “with thanksgiving”, helping them recognize and celebrate the goodness of God amidst difficult circumstances.  This is a worthy lesson to learn for anyone, anywhere.

Thanksgiving and celebration makes hardship tolerable and gives one strength to carry on. These disciplines gives strength in trying times by focusing attention on that which causes joy and gladness – truly, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10).  By focusing attention of the good it trains one’s perception to see what God is doing, recognizing that God is near, and “He will never is leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

(4) Continuing in hope

Shackleton never allowed his crew to give up.  They were always moving forward, always planning and preparing for tomorrow.  In his mind, and from his mouth, it was clear that they were going to get home to England.  He never gave up on hope, and never allowed the crew to slide into hopelessness, because he knew that hope is necessary for endurance.  If a person believes that nothing is going to change for the good, that person sinks in the mud of depression and hopelessness, and finds no reason to fight and or live on.  But if one believes that pushing forward today will be rewarded in the end, it is worth it.

The author of Hebrews frequently motivate endurance with the promise of reward (hope), for example you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise” (Hebrews 10:36) and later encouraging the readers to “run the race with endurance, looking to Jesus… who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, compare with 1 Thessalonians 1:3).  Jesus found strength to continue through tremendous suffering, his eyes fixed on the joyfilled reward at the end.

Paul imitated Jesus’ example, as he was a man who experienced great difficulty, including afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, …slander, …being poor” (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).  In another place he records “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).  How did he endure these hardships?  He kept his eye on the reward, a “crown of righteousness” (2 Timothy 4:8) saying “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18; see also 1 Corinthians 3:14, Colossians 3:23-24).   Paul joyfully pushed one through suffering in hope of eternal rewards in the Lord.  He reckoned that suffering briefly for eternal rewards was worth it, making these moments of pain bearable.

(5) Courage from God

Finally, God gives strength to press on in difficult times – to those who “wait on the Lord” (Isaiah 40:30-31).  I have over the years learnt from David, who knew the Lord as “my strength” (Psalm 18:1, 118:14, 140:7), to “seek the Lord and his strength” (Psalm 105:4) when my I feel weak or ready to give up.  I have learnt to “wait on the Lord [to] strengthen [my] heart” (Psalm 27:14), and also to “strengthen [myself] in the Lord [my] God” (1 Samuel 30:6) as David did in hopeless situations.  With the Shepherd-king I can witness that “the Lord gives strength to his people” (Psalm 29:11) when I set time aside to pray to God for courage, strength and hope to continue doing what he calls met to do, although everything in me wants to walk an easier road.

Paul also testified that Christ Jesus has given him strength in trying times (1 Timothy 1:12), and could therefore pray for the Ephesian church that God would strengthen their hearts (Ephesians 3:14-16) amidst the persecution, encouraging them to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10).   Thus we learn from Paul that one should find strength in God, but also that through encouragement and prayer from others one is strengthened by God.  From his example we learn that we should encourage one another joyfully and hopefully press on, to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3) of those facing hardship around us.  Strength is found in God’s community.

Making it personal

If you are reading this as someone going through hardships now, I want to re-tweet the thrust of John’s message to the persecuted churches in Ephesus: “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (Revelations 13:10, 14:12).  Although your suffering might not be religious oppression, you must know that your endurance is noticed and commended by Christ himself (Revelations 2:2, 19).  He will put and end to your suffering One Day (Revelations 21:3-5) and if you endure in faith to the end, he will give you your reward from him (Revelations 22:12).

And in the words of Paul: Run the race in such a way that you may revive the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24).Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), and may “the God of endurance and encouragement” (Romans 15:5) strengthen you with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11).  “Press on, that [you] may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of [you]” (Philippians 3:2).

It is appropriate to close this lesson on endurance from the exemplary life of Sir Ernest Shackleton with the words from Winston Churchill, since he was the man who sent the last telegram to the Endurance crew as they left the London harbor for their trans-Atlantic expedition on August the 1st, 1914.  Later that day the war with Germany broke out, leaving the whole of Europe in turmoil for the next forty years.  On October 29, 1941, Churchill then Prime Minister visited Harrow School to hear some of the traditional songs he grew up with and address the learners.  Standing in the podium he stared at the youngsters long and hard, and then uttered the following short and urgent admonition: “Never give in – never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” [audio recording] During tough times let this phrase ring in your ears, as you remembering the enduring examples of Jesus, Shackleton, Paul, the prophets and the saints through the ages. Never give in!

Our Lonely World

Earlier this week the legendary actor Robin Williams was found dead in his own home.  He apparently committed suicide, an act aptly described by reporter Andrew Solomon as “A crime of loneliness” [1].  In the Reuters news article about his death, Alex Saphir writes what many of us think: “His tragic end stood in stark contrast to the many on-screen characters he portrayed who encouraged those around them to tap into their own inner vitality, a wellspring of creativity to which he himself gave full vent in films such as “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society.” [2]  Not many people knew of Robin’s deep struggle, since loneliness by its nature is rarely observable to others.

Being lonely and loneliness are two separate things; solitude and isolation are not the same.  One can be alone in a room without feeling lonely, yet many of us have experienced the feeling of loneliness especially in a crowded place.  It is a well-known fact that around 10% of older people feel chronically lonely [3], understandably so due to immobility, mental decline and friends passing away, etc.  But a 2010 Mental Health Foundation report found that today loneliness is more prevalent among young people. [4]

This is extremely worrisome since loneliness is detrimental to one’s mental and physical health.  In one study 42% of people linked depression to their loneliness. [5]  Low self-esteem, hopelessness, paranoia and anxiety are commonly associated with loneliness. Lonely people often indulge in behaviors that are harmful to themselves, such as over-eating, binge drinking, risky sexual relations and drug use; these sensual behaviors numb the pain of social isolation.  Furthermore, feeling lonely can literally break your heart [6] – thus it is not strange that loneliness in itself increases the probability of an early death by as much as 45% [7].

Our society is lonely and consequently hurting.  Our society desperately longs for connectedness, intimacy and belonging – that is the way we were created by God.  Loneliness is not a sign of weakness or spiritual immaturity – it simply speaks of a legitimate desire created by God that is not appropriately met.

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In your face(book)

Although at least one Canadian newspaper article referred to loneliness as “the disease of our time… an epidemic… with millions effected”  [8] in 1982, the problem is much more prevalent today.  Social media gets the brunt of the blame for making relationships superficial, as studies show that the more time one spends on Facebook the more lonely, less sociable and less happy one becomes. [9]  In her acclaimed TED Talk Connected, but alone?, MIT professor Sherry Turkle argues that electronic relationships has the potential to leave one empty and alone, since we present idealized versions of selves through filtered images and edited conversations, so we have online relationships with constructs of others, not the real self.  This leaves us with the feeling that everyone is projecting but no one is hearing us.

However, the 2010 Mental Health Foundation report also states that social media is an obvious benefit to rekindle and maintain relationships where face-time is not possible due to immobility (due to long-term sickness or a new-born baby), or in a situation where family and friends relocate.  This is an important factor in perceived social isolation (a.k.a. loneliness): people who live and grow up in an environment that constantly changes do not put down deep relational roots, nor do they learn how to build deep and meaningful relationships.  Factors that aggravate this relational disconnect include increased working hours, work-related travel, and especially family break-ups.  The family break-ups again points to another important factor of societal loneliness: people are afraid to be hurt in close relationships when they have been betrayed, abused, rejected or shamed in the past by one with whom they have been vulnerable.  In such cases skillful, patient love must facilitate healing for trust to be regained.

So our lonely world is made of Facebook “friends” who pretend to talk while no-one is listening and others who cannot meet one another due to immobility or distance, the ones who perpetually uproot and relocate and the ones who set up fences because of past hurts.  Ours is a detached, broken, vulnerable society raising insecure, unloved and angry children who are disconnected and unsure of their identities.

How do we respond to this as Christians?  Isaiah 61:4 speaks prophetically of a people saved and healed by God, who in turn will build up a broken down society, bringing complete restoration to “devastations of many generations.”  Thus we ought to be restored relationally, and then rebuild society relationally by the loving power of God.

What does the Bible teach about God’s answer to loneliness?

  1. Marriage as God’s solution to loneliness

Genesis 2:18-20 “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.”

Surprisingly, God is the first to mention loneliness in man.  He states “it is not good that man should be alone…”  This is profound, since this loneliness predates the rebellion of man and the devastating effect of sin entering the world and human nature.  Adam had a perfect communion with God, and yet God says “man is alone… this is not good.”  Adam’s desire for a mate is part of Adam’s sinless perfection before the fall; the longing for Eve is good and appropriate. I never tell a single person that their relationship with God should be sufficient, because God said the opposite.

But then God leaves Adam until he himself recognizes his own loneliness by observing the bliss of companionship among the animals he governs.  Then God made Eve and brought her to Adam.  In fear of some old lady reading this with a poodle on her lap, or a farmer with his German Sheppard in the front seat of his truck next to him, I must mention that Adam’s loneliness was not satisfied by all the animals in the world – his loneliness was only cured in another human being.  Nor could Adam’s job solve his need for human companionship.  Eve was the answer God had in mind.

God’s first cure for loneliness is a spouse. (Read a previous blog On marriage and our culture for more the design of marriage and the challenge within our culture).

  1. Family as God’s solution to loneliness

 

Psalm 68:5-6 “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God sets the lonely in families…”

God’s plan for mankind has always been families.  As the Perfect Father (Ephesians 3:14-15) He embraces those rejected from society, those who are vulnerable and marginalized. He adopts them into His loving family, giving them a safe place where they find identity and belonging in a loving environment.

Not only does God adopt us as children into His heavenly family, but He also places the outcast, the vulnerable and the lonely in families on earth.  This is a simple way of rebuilding society and stilling the pains of loneliness – whether by formal, legal adoption or merely by a radical inclusion of people into your home and heart.  Follow God’s example and seek out the lonely widow in your street, the single mothers in your community, the neglected neighborhood children, the fitness-freak bachelorette or the burger-eating computer-game-bachelor, and draw them into the family of God by bringing them into your heart and home. Let God place the lonely into your family and friendship circles, and let’s love them as Jesus loves us.

(For more on how to practically show love as Jesus did, read a previous blog on Known by your love. )

 

  1. Friendship as God’s solution to loneliness

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12  “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!   Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?  And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

A third way in which God solves loneliness is by means of friendship. This friendship is not merely an emotional connectedness or recreational filler.  As seen in the Ecclesiastes text above, Biblical friendship implies partnership and sharing, co-dependence, mutual support and protection, and communion.  This is the shared life of friendship David had with his mighty men while living as mercenaries during King Saul’s reign. This is the shared life of friendship Jesus enjoyed with his disciples while on earth.

This is friendship that satisfies the hungry heart and answers the relational call of loneliness.  This is the friendship that is ”closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24)

  1. God with ’s indwelling Sprit as solution to loneliness

 Isaiah 7:14 “He shall be called Immanuel” – God with us”; Hebrews 13:5 “He will never leave us or abandon us.”

In most Western cultures Christmas is one of most joyful times because it brings families, friends and communities together is a time of celebration.  Yet Christmas time is the worst time for countless many people since their loneliness is accentuated by the family festivities of everyone else, resulting in the highest suicides occurrences in any calendar year in the West.  This is especially sad since the birth of Christ is about eradicating loneliness and hopelessness in the world[10]: “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel [meaning ‘God with us’]” (Isaiah 7:14; compare John 1:14-15).  In Jesus God again walked with man as God walked Adam at first.

And not only was Jesus Immanuel, God with the disciples and people in Israel during his short life on earth as a first-century Jewish man, but he promised his abiding presence with his disciples as they left continued his work of discipleship everywhere they go, until the end of time (Matthew 28:20).  So that promise remains for us – God dwells in us as believers through his Spirit living in us (Romans 8:9-11; Colossians 1:27).  We are never alone – he promised to never leave us or abandon us (Hebrews 13:5).

This changes the way Christians experience loneliness, because even though we feel lonely at times, like Adam we feel lonely in the loving fellowship of God our Father.  Being lonely with God means I can share my loneliness with God.  Or in the words of Peter, I can cast my burden of loneliness on him, because I know he cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).

And this loneliness is at times a good thing since it seems that God deals best with us when we’re alone, as we see in the life of Jacob, alienated from his family by his deceit, but God met him at the river bank.  Jacob became Israel – he was never the same again, because he wrestled God alone (Genesis 32:24).  The same can be said of Jesus, when he felt lonely and scared the night before the crucifixion and his disciples fell asleep:  He needed to carry that burden alone, and again the next day being forsaken by everyone, he carried the burden the Father entrusted to him alone, and it changed all of history (Matthew 26:39; 27:46).

In your loneliness know that you are never alone – God is with you. So “draw near to God, and we will draw near to you” (James 4:8).  Share all your loneliness and desires with him.  Allow him to heal you, so that you can rebuild your society with the loving power that overflows from your times with him.

[1] Solomon A, A Crime of Loneliness, The New Yorker, 14 August 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/suicide-crime-loneliness

[2] Saphir A., Dobuzinskis A., Sinha-Roy P., Comedy great Robin Williams hangs himself at home, Reuters, 12 August 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/12/us-people-robinwilliams-idUSKBN0GB28520140812,

[3] Jopling K., Barnett A., Alone in Crowd – compilation of articles, June 2014, p2, available at http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/wp-content/plugins/download-monitor/download.php?id=195

[4] Griffin J., The lonely society report, Mental Health Foundation UK, 2010, available at http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/content/assets/PDF/publications/the_lonely_society_report.pdf

[5] Hall J.N., Loneliness and Mental Health – The Most Terrible Poverty, Campaign to end loneliness, 26 June 2014,

http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/blog/the-most-terrible-poverty-loneliness-and-mental-health/

[6] Hainer R., Loneliness hurts the heart, Health Magazine, 10 August 2009, found online at http://edition.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/conditions/07/27/moh.healthmag.lonely.heart/

[7] Merz T., Loneliness Young people are lonely – but social media isn’t to blame, The Telegraph 25 Jul 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html

[8] Whittaker S., Loneliness – A disease of modern times, The Montreal Gazette, 25 September 1982, available at http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1946&dat=19820925&id=QX8xAAAAIBAJ&sjid=C6UFAAAAIBAJ&pg=1477,1513416  

[9] Greig A., All the lonely Facebook friends, Daily Mail, 12 September 2013, available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2419419/All-lonely-Facebook-friends-Study-shows-social-media-makes-MORE-lonely-unhappy-LESS-sociable.html

[10] Rogers A., God’s answer to loneliness, http://www.lwf.org/site/News2?abbr=for_&id=10071, viewed 12 August 2014

Known by your love

A while ago this question came to me: “If people were to judge my faith based on my actions – what would they say I believe?”  It is certainly a question worth considering, because “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).  And this question is even more relevant today since the number one accusation against the contemporary church is that of hypocrisy[1] – that Christians profess one thing but live differently. According to outsiders, our intentions and actions do not correlate.

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‘Hypocrite’ means actor, pretender or ‘masked one’.

In stark contrast, Jesus said his followers would be known for their love, and he even gave the world the right to judge their authenticity based on this!

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

Before considering the life example of Jesus a few aspects in this incredible text are worth noting.  Firstly, Francis Schaeffer called this love “the mark of the Christians”[2] since this love which distinguishes Christians as followers of Jesus is not primarily a feeling, but a relational dynamic which is visible from the outside. Jesus-followers are known by their love because this love is seen in actions which are not normative in the world.  Secondly, by saying ‘as I have loved’ Jesus said the disciples should copy his loving behavior – his relationship to them modeled these loving actions. Thirdly, note that Jesus did not say our love to unbelievers characterize us as Christians, but rather love for insiders, for “one another”.  This is important, because doing one loving act for a passer-by is easy, by living in constant love with people around you is quite another thing. Lastly, note that Jesus gave it as a command to love, implying a decision to comply, and thus not a love primarily lead by feelings.  Thus it is our choice to do loving actions towards fellow Christians which mark us as Jesus-followers, or not.

Considering this command of Jesus, how can we follow his example so that his love is made visible in our actions?  Or more simply put, what does his love look like?

  1. Radical acceptance

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Jesus instructed his disciples to love as he loved them, thus to emulate his loving actions towards them (and this was before his crucifixion).  They have walked with him for about three years so they would have had ample reference for what he meant.  Looking at the twelve to whom he gave this command, we immediately see the first aspect of this love: it is radically inclusive.

Jesus disciples were diverse in every aspect.  Firstly they were culturally and racially diverse: Peter, Andrew, Bartholomew were Galileans while Simon was a Canaanite – people who did not normally associate by choice.   Secondly, we know that they were politically on opposite sides: Thaddeus and Simon were Zealots, a Jewish extremists party aiming to liberate Israel from Roman oppression by means of military force[3]. On the opposite political spectrum Matthew was a chief tax collector, a liberalist Jew who lived as the Romans and made a living oppressing his fellow Jews financially in service of the Roman oppressors.  There certainly would have been political conflict between these two groups! Thirdly, the Gospels make it clear that there were personality clashes within this group: the brothers James and John were called “sons of thunder” because of their impulsive and aggressive tendencies, while Thomas was the doubtful and more reserved.  Peter was an initiator and natural leader while on the other hand Phillip was recorded as pessimistic, perhaps even cynical.  John’s gospel reveals that he and Peter did not get along, even indicating some competition between the two.  Yet Jesus chose each one of these individuals alike and was patient with them.  And by doing so he demonstrated his love by accepting their racial and cultural, political and personality differences, giving the disciples an example to follow.

These first apostles, who themselves experienced this radical acceptance from Jesus, put this principle in writing to the first congregations. James wrote to the church in Jerusalem about this love in practice, to treat rich and poor alike and not to tolerate “distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts”, labelling it the sin of partiality (James 2:2-9).   Paul likewise wrote to the churches in Galatia that they make no distinction among themselves based on ethnicity, social class or gender since all have died to the flesh and have “put on Christ” in baptism (Galatians 3:27-28; cf 1 Corinthians 12:13 and 2 Corinthians 5:16-17).  Regarding this new identity, Peter wrote Christians should regard themselves as “a new generation… a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:8-9) thus one new ethnicity in which they find identification rather than distinction.

In practice, Jesus’ love shown among his followers means a radical acceptance and equal treatment of each other based on their acceptance by Christ.

  1. Sharing life

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Secondly, the disciples who first heard this New Commandment of love knew how Jesus shared his life with them – every day, everything.  They lived together from one purse, with one purpose.  They knew that before they had a “mission” of preaching and healing, Jesus called them “to be with him” (Mark 3:14) – to share life together.

This communal living was modeled and imitated in the early church who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).  Simply put, they came together for learning together, sharing together, serving together, eating together and praying together.  They met for fellowship and teaching “every day, in the temple and from house to house” (Acts 5:42).  They were aptly named “church” (Greek ekklesia) which means “called out ones” – thus people were heard the call of God and gathered together.  Church means being together, living together, coming together to meet with God.  And that’s where the love is shared and felt.

Our contemporary society values privacy and individualism. We strive for self-sufficiency, autonomy and independence.  With that mindset we come into the church.  However, being part of the Church means being “immersed into one body of Christ” by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), implying a shared life of interdependence. We must then exchange our self-centeredness for communal life. The words the New Testament writers use to explain this concept is “fellowship” (variations of the Greek words metocos and koinonia roughly meaning “to have in common”), with four primary implications, ala Keathley[4].  Firstly this fellowship is an objective relationship, since together we share in the Gospel (Ephesians 3:6) and thus share in Christ himself (Ephesians 3:9) and are “coheirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). Secondly this fellowship is companionship, the acts of sharing in Christ together (1 John 1:7) through the Spirit, as we meet together for teaching, communion, worship, prayer or to encourage each other.[5] Thirdly, fellowship refers to partnership of those “who share in a heavenly calling” (Hebrews 3:1) and are called “God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9) – essentially working together.  Lastly, fellowship implies stewardship as sharing earthly resources and meeting material needs – a logical overflow from sharing in the life of Christ and his calling (see Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 6:18; Philippians 4:15).

Thus the early church followed Jesus’ example of love through being together and sharing all literally, and instructed new converts to do likewise.

  1. Patience and forgiveness

forgiveness

Jesus’ example of love with his disciples was one of patience and forgiveness.  In the Gospels he nick-names his disciples “You of little faith” (Matthew 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8) since they struggled to believe the power of God who was with them. Yet Jesus was patient with them and modeled this life of faith until they believed.  The disciples were also slow to understand (Mark 4:13; 6:52; 8:17, 21; 9:32) the teaching of Jesus, so that we read the well known phrase “again I say to you…” (Matthew 18:19).  Yet Jesus was patient and did not give up on them.

Jesus also demonstrated tremendous patience with the disciples’ amidst their constant striving for prominence and “greatness” (eg Luke 22:24).  Jesus was patient and tolerant with the weaknesses of doubtful Thomas as well as Judas the thief.  He gave stern yet loving correction. But Jesus’ patient example and teachings paid off, so that in the end they believed as he believed, and lived as he lived.

When his disciples betrayed him during his arrest and crucifixion he forgave them and continued with their discipleship afterwards.  Jesus modeled patient and merciful love.

The early church also modelled their communities on this aspect of Jesus’ love.  Paul frequently wrote to the socially and ethnically diverse congregations to be patient with one another, and forgive one another “tender-heartedly” in the way Christ did (Ephesians 4:2,32; cf Colossians 3:12-14).  This also implies gentle restoration of someone who falls into sinful practice, and to “bear [the] burdens” of someone who is weak in any sense (Galatians 6:1-2; cf 2 Corinthians 2:6-7).

Jesus’ example of love was one of patiently bearing with the weaknesses and failures of his disciples, as well as relentless forgiveness of their betrayal and offences.

  1. Affection

 

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Another practical way in which Jesus’ love was to be perpetuated in his disciples was the intimate, affectionate way he shared himself with them.  This sincere, simple love for his disciples which included intimate friendship, such as John using Jesus as a pillow for his head while the group was relaxing (see John 13:25) and the affectionate way in which he spoke to them and prayed for them (see especially John 14-17).  He also allowed others to come close and touch him as expressions of love and admiration (eg Luke 7:37-38; John 12:2-6).

Consequently the apostles gave instructions that this example of Jesus’ affection be ingrained in the culture of the early congregations.  For example Peter instructed “Greet one another with the kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14) and Paul wrote “Let love be genuine… Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:9-10).  Paul also appealed that the church’ verbal culture should always be gracious and uplifting (Ephesians 4:29; Colossians 4:16).

Thus Jesus’ love should also be seen through demonstration of appropriate affection and a culture of verbal affirmation and endearment among his followers.

  1. Selfless service

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Lastly, the way in which Jesus modeled love for his disciples on the evening when he gave them the New Command was humble, selfless servitude.  After washing their feet, taking the place of the lowest servant, he said “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13: 15)[6].  Jesus taught that love meant esteeming the worth and needs of others higher, meeting those needs in service; love manifests in selfless sacrifice (John 15:13). This is the message of the cross is ultimately this selfless love of Christ.

Years later Paul appealed to the church in Philippi that love should manifest in this humble, selfless attitude in serving one another, regarding the needs of the other higher than self as Jesus “who made himself nothing, taking the form of a bondservant …and humbled himself to the point of death” (Philippians 2:7-8; cf 2:3-4).  Love in practice results in selfless service, fulfilling the needs of others – even at cost to self.

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These five ways in which love was modeled in the life of Jesus formed the basis of the relational dynamic of the early church; they were indeed known by their love.  And this should be the key aspects which distinguish Christ-followers today: a love that is visible and practical.

How do we respond to this command to “love one-another” as Christ loved his disciples?  Firstly, we respond in radical acceptance and inclusion of everyone who wishes to follow Christ – treating everyone with the same dignity and affection, regardless of ethnic or cultural background, political ideology or personality.  Secondly we respond by sharing our life with the congregation: meeting together in fellowship, worship and prayer as well as sharing readily from what we have with one another.  And this is fundamental to our identity as Christians.  Thirdly, love demands we support and identify with Christ-followers who differ from us, disagree with us, or disappoint us.  Even when they hurt us.  This requires patience (also known as longsuffering or forbearance) and forgiveness (or mercy) as Jesus modeled.  Fourthly, love in practice is affectionate in appropriate physical demonstration and verbal affirmation – our conversations and interaction should be loving and encouraging.  Lastly, and most importantly, the love Jesus modeled for us is selfless, humble servitude.  Our culture should be one of regarding the other higher, and deeming the needs of the other more important.

This practice of sharing life together in loving acceptance, affection, patience and forgiveness and selfless service is a visible witness of Christ among us.  This is the love that Jesus says shows your faith.  This is the love that turns the world towards Christ.

[1] Kinnaman D., Lyons G., unChristian (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2007), p. 21-23.

[2] Schaeffer F., The Mark of the Christian (IVP Books: Downers Grove, Illinois, 1970)

[3] The evening of Jesus’ arrest He gave instruction to the disciples to arm themselves, knowing things could become violent later.  The disciples answered “Look, Lord, here are two” (Luke 22:38) – probably Thaddeus and Simon’s swords.  It appears as though these two Zealots never let go of their political ideals of restoring the Kingdom of Israel with force, and Jesus was patient with them.

[4] Keathley J.H. III, Christian Fellowship, article found at http://bible.org/christian-fellowship

[5] Some examples of how and why the early church came together (“had fellowship”): They came together as whole congregations (Acts 2:42; Heb 10:25), smaller groups (2Tim. 2:2), or one-on-one (1Thes 5:11), for sharing truth together (Rom 1:11-12; 2Tim 2:2), communion (1Cor 10:16), singing (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16), prayer (1Cor 14:16-17), teaching (Acts 20:20; 2Tim 2:2), and ministering to one another (Rom 12:15; Heb 10:33).

 

[6] At times this text is misinterpreted to make a sacrament or ministry of foot-washing.  Yet Jesus did not say “do what I have done” meaning to imitate the act of foot-washing, but rather “do as I have done”, implying to copy the way in which he served them.  The disciples were instructed to imitate Jesus’ humble, selfless service – not repeat the act itself.