Photo Credit: fatboyke (Luc)
Last week, I had the privilege of retreating with a group of leaders from our church. We went to a mountain cabin in the cool pines of Arizona where an afternoon rain caused the temperature to plummet into the 60s. Coming from the desert environs of Phoenix where the summer lows might drop into the high 80s, it was a welcomed change.
As refreshing as the temperatures were, even more refreshing was the time spent in quiet reflection and prayerful listening. During a time of group sharing on the last day of our retreat, one of the leaders made a statement that I am still pondering. He said “I am learning to love God slowly.”
“Love God slowly!” As I heard these words, I immediately sensed that He was on to something and the awkward phrasing caused me to stop and reflect on what was meant. English is my friend’s second language which likely contributed to the unique expression, but he was doing his best to put his experience of God into words.
Several things have occurred to me as I continue to ponder my friend’s words:
- Our command of a particular language can actually be a barrier to experiencing God. There is no way that words can contain God and certainly not our experience of Him. When we depend too heavily upon words to understand the gracious movements of God in our lives, we might just be limiting our understanding and simply settling for old categories or overly simplistic ideas that can no longer describe Him. There are times when we have an experience of love and/or awe and we say, “I don’t know how to put that into words.” Perhaps, there are times when we just need to sit with God and refrain from the attempt all together. Simply sitting in silence can be a reminder than God is bigger than our words and concepts and ideas. Interestingly, it was from a time of quiet, wordless reflection that my friend emerged with the phrase “love God slowly.”
- Then, of course, the very idea of “loving God slowly” is so profound. We can’t love fast. We just can’t. It’s not possible. Speed keeps love from being deep and thorough. Love lingers and savors and enjoys. So, loving God slowly means that we stop and give ample time to listen and notice what is really going on. How much do I miss because I am simply too busy and too hurried to perceive? As a teenager, college student, and young married adult, I moved so fast and missed much in my surroundings. Living in the Phoenix area, I missed that there are mountains all around. The Phoenix Mountains Preserve (right in the middle of the city) is the largest city park in the United States, but I missed its beauty and grandeur. My wife and I moved away for 15 years and upon moving back in my forties, I’ve found myself thinking on more than one occasion, “Were those mountains there when we lived here before?” It is possible for there to be profound, amazing, beautiful realities right before our eyes and not see them. It requires moving slowly. As I learn to love God slowly, it means that I can see and experience His profound presence in my life in deepening ways.
- There are certainly benefits to moving fast but do they outweigh the benefits of moving slowly? Teilhardde Chardin, the noted scientist and Jesuit mystic, said it well: “The physical structure of the universe is love.” If that is true, the going fast keeps me from love and therefore the very nature of the universe. God reveals Himself personally through the Holy Scriptures, through my intuition, and through His creation. I can miss all of this running too fast. The benefits of going fast are not only outweighed by loving slowly, they are obliterated.
- As I considered further the concept of slow love, a verse from 1 Corinthians 13 kept coming to mind: “love is patient.” Of course, patience is most frequently thought of as a response to a negative circumstance. The object of my love is irritating, so I need to be patient. But, could this also speak of a more positive application of love? Love, in its very nature, is slow which leads to waiting through a tough situation but also means that I wait for intimacy to develop. I wait and am slow because the deepest realities of love and life and God won’t just jump out at us. Love is patient also in a very positive sense. In the Song of Solomon, there is a refrain that is threaded through the love song: “do not awaken love until it pleases.” The idea is that we wait for love to develop. Intimacy doesn’t happen in an instance. It is a vast reservoir that must be accessed and explored over time.
- Finally, I thought about how often our concepts and experiences of God are frequently marked by platitudes and borrowed phrases. “God is good … all the time.” While certainly true, that phrase likely doesn’t come from a place of personal intimacy for many who utter it. Intimacy and depth of relationship produce nicknames and “pet phrases” that no one else knows. The words and concepts that emerge from intimacy are likely understood by no one else, or at the very least, they sound strange. I have nicknames and phrases for and with my wife that twenty-five years of marriage have produced. What seemingly awkward phrases do I share with God? What is His name for me? Revelation 2:17 indicates that God’s gives a new name (“a nickname”) that is only known by us as we walk faithfully (“slowly”?) with Him.
Ponder this idea of loving God slowly. What might that mean for you? How can you slowdown in order to walk in step with the very nature of the universe? Reflect upon one way you can love God slowly today.
Prayer: Father God, may I love you slowly. Give me the eyes to see you as I slow down and take notice of you … as I linger at your throne in prayer, not to gain anything but to enjoy what is already ours in relationship. You are so worthy of the best of my time. Thank you for loving me slowly and being patient with the process you’re continuing to graciously unfold in my life. Amen.
Resource: An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling
Check out this 8 week online study that will September 12 if you’d like to grow in your intimacy with the God of the universe! The God Who Dances
God can’t fix you. Ok, perhaps a better way to say it is that God isn’t interested in fixing you. I realize that might sound strange to but please hear me out. Clearly, God promises to deliver us (Col 1:13-14) and to give us life (John 10:10). Some have even suggested that God has a “wonderful plan” for our lives. However, most frequently we interpret these ideas of deliverance and life and plans on our own terms rather than God’s terms.
A simple survey of our lives should create enough cognitive dissonance to prod us in the direction of reexamining our presuppositions about the nature of how God is present in our lives. He simply doesn’t “fix” all the areas of discomfort and pain and suffering in our lives and the lives of those we love. We lose parents to cancer and suffer with chronic illnesses. We suffer the loss of friends and often feel a sense of loneliness no matter how many people are around us.
For some, the solution is believed to be more prayer or trust or obedience. The argument goes like this: “if I just have enough faith, then God will bless me.” Or, “if I live purely before Him, things will go well in my life.” The problem with this kind of thinking is it is based more on “magic” than the reality of who God is.
To be sure, we all want magic. We’d love to have the formula to make pain go away and live happily ever after. Just as Blanche said in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I don’t want realism, I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people, I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.” Part of the allure of “magic” is that it puts us in control but in our pursuit of magic, we have to deny reality. And, it is in that denial that we isolate ourselves from what we truly desire and need.
Reality is that God doesn’t usually fix things (at least not on our terms). In John 11, Jesus is alerted to the fact that His friend Lazarus is ill and instead of running quickly to fix the situation, he waited and took His time to get to his friend. In the interim, Lazarus died and his sister Martha said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Of course, if you know the rest of the story, you realize that Jesus resurrected Lazarus. It is important not to skip too quickly to the resurrection part because it is in Jesus’ waiting that we are alerted to the fact that God is not a “fix it” man. He does bring healing and renewal and restoration that is complete but what is the nature of that resurrection?
Larry Crabb astutely made the observation, “If God was committed to my comfort, He’s not doing a very good job. Maybe He’s committed to something else.” When we consider the nature of the resurrection, we see that God is committed to restoration of our relationship with Him … that loving, dependent fellowship that we have with the Trinity. In Ephesians 1, Paul prayed that we would know “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” (vv. 19-20) God is committed to us knowing resurrection power and what is the nature or teleological end of that power? It is loving, intimate fellowship with God.
And so, our pain and “unfixed” life situations should alert us to the idea that God has purposes deeper and more significant than giving us lives that are comfortable and without distress. Whether it is physical pain, relational hurt, or spiritual temptation, it seems clear that hurts and weaknesses can not only lead us into God’s purposes but also be necessary for what He has in mind.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, Job is presented as a blameless, God fearing man, and God allowed Him to be afflicted and tempted. In the New Testament Scriptures, Paul was afflicted with a “thorn” and God refused to take it away after a season of prayer. In his refusal, God shares what He’s committed to: “My grace is sufficient.” God desires for us to be in a love relationship with Himself and if he takes away all the pain, we’ll seemingly have no need for Him. Years ago, a family friend gave our family a framed statement that she found on her father’s desk upon his death:
“When we are helpless to change the unchangeable,
this is the hour that God in His promise becomes so real.
I’m always reminded that if we could control life and death,
seemingly we would have no need of Him.
May His presence guide you in these hours and days ahead.”
One of the most difficult areas of exploration is the area of lingering temptation and sin in our lives. We might ask: why can’t God just take all of this sinfulness away once and for all? In her book Extravagant Grace, Barbara Duguid puts it this way:
“God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin. If the job of the Holy Spirit is to make you more humble and dependent on Christ, more grateful for his sacrifice and more adoring of him as a wonderful Savior, then he might be doing a very, very good job even though you still sin every day.”
So, God doesn’t “fix” us but He graciously extends resurrection power that enables us to do life with Him. We are able to walk through any storm or hurt or temptation or trial because He is with us, reminding us that His grace is sufficient.
Quite frequently, we get derailed because it is not the voice of love we hear but the voices of entitlement and pride. Henri Nouwen reminds us: “Only by constantly attending to the inner voice can you be converted to a new life of freedom and joy.” (The Inner Voice of Love) We must ruthlessly and consistently eliminate messages that suggest anything other than the truth that God is absolutely, passionately, intimately in love with us and that He is present.
A few years before he left this earth, Brennan Manning beautifully suggested the following: “I am utterly convinced that on the judgement day, the Lord Jesus is going to ask us one question and only one question: did you believe that I loved you? that I desired you? that I waited for you day after day? that I longed to hear the sound of your voice?”
Are you listening for His voice of love (that His grace is sufficient) or are you still listening to the voices of comfort and accomplishment and success and appreciation?
The voice to which we listen shapes our expectations and desires. Let Him shape your heart and mind! Today, spend a few moments attending to His voice of love. Let Him speak His words of love over you (Zephaniah 3:17). Simply select a verse or phrase from Scripture which speaks of His desire for you and sit with that verse for 10 minutes … reflect on it, meditate on it, talk to God about it … as your mind drifts, simply come back to that verse or phrase.
So, fix us? No. Restore us into a deep, abiding relationship with Himself? Yes. Don’t ask Him to “fix” you, ask Him to draw you ever closer to His heart! If taking away a hurt or an illness or a temptation can best accomplish that purpose, He’ll do it, but don’t ever mistake His intention for you or forget how He longs to know and love you.
After resurrection, there is peace
Strivings can cease
Breathing can slow
After resurrection, there is peace
A peace that surpasses understanding
A peace that calms my fears
After resurrection, there is peace
All things are made new
The promise of hope is real
After resurrection, there is peace
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” Luke 23:46
The last words of Jesus on the cross are a simple prayer of entrusting Himself to the Father. In the midst of His suffering and as it was coming to an end, His approach was trust. 1 Peter 2:23 describes Jesus: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
The just judgment of God was a comfort to Jesus on the cross. As He certainly felt the sting of insults and the shame of hanging naked on a cross, He continued to trust. It is tempting to think of a “sanitized” savior who suffered quickly and quietly but the evidence is that Jesus was tortured and villainously mocked. His relationship with the Father and the Spirit were His comfort and focus as “in every respect he has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15) This statement from the writer of Hebrews tells us at least three things:
- Jesus was sinless which is why “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) The writer of Hebrews shares that we can hold fast our confession (our trust in Christ) because He is a great high priest. He made the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. (cf. Hebrews 9:26-27) Our relationship with God is secure and safe.
- With such security and safety, we can draw near to the throne of grace (Heb 4:16) and find mercy and grace in our time of need. What Jesus did on the cross is truly gospel (good news) because the truth is that we are always in need of love and acceptance. In Jesus, we find refuge for our souls.
- Finally, the first part of Hebrews 4:15 shares that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” He became weak and knows what it is like to feel need and vulnerability. The cross is both example and entrance. It provides entrance to the throne of grace and at the same time provides the example for how we approach.
These last words of Jesus (“into your hands I commit my spirit”) is a quote from Psalm 31. In addition, the words “I thirst” and “My God, why have you forsaken me?” also come from Psalms (69; 22). What we see in Jesus’ example is that the Psalms are intended to be a prayer book. From the cross, Jesus could have prayed anything and it would have been right and pure but He modeled that the Psalms are a gift from God to shape and guide us in prayer. At times, our prayers can be flimsy and self-centered but the Psalms give structure and theological, spiritual integrity to our communing with God.
In writing about the Psalms, the reformer John Calvin said: “I have been wont to call this book, not inappropriately, an anatomy of all parts of the soul; for there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” The beauty is that the Psalms give us words for what is happening inside of us and then a trustworthy structure for talking to God about the honest contents of our hearts.
For millennia, the Psalm have been prayed in group settings as well. Episcopal monk Br. Mark Brown (SSJE) explains the value: “Sometimes we Brothers are asked why we recite all the Psalms–even the cursing Psalms. Praying the Psalter is a stylized, poeticized, set-to-music way of lifting up the whole human condition, the full range of experience from darkest night to brightest day. It’s a way of praying with and for the whole of humanity.”
The Psalms demonstrate that the Father desires all of us – the confused and the joyous, the angry and the content, the doubting and the trusting parts of us. So often, we bring the contents of our hearts to our self (our evaluating and deliberating and cleaning) or to others for sympathy or advice. But, Jesus demonstrates a better way: we can bring our despairing questions (“My God, why have your forsaken me?”) and our frustrations (“I thirst”) and our trust (“into your hands I commit my spirit”) to God in prayer. As we do, we are shaped and formed by His presence in our lives.
Today, on this dark day between the crucifixion and the resurrection, what do you need to bring to Him? Pray through Psalm 139 – acknowledging that He knows you and is present with you (v. 1-18), entrusting your anger and hurt to Him (v. 19-22), and asking Him to search your heart (v. 23-24).
An additional prayer to pray throughout the day: Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God. (Ps 31:5)
“It is finished.” John 19:30
We live in a world where so much feels “undone” and incomplete. Even more, things are chaotic and unpredictable. As a result, we can internalize our environment and unconsciously believe that it reflects deepest reality. The result is a generalized existential angst in which we ask the questions: can any of this really mean anything? Does all the chaos have any meaning at all? Most often residing deeper than our awareness, this anxiety fuels a constant search for meaning through accomplishment, accumulation, and affection. And so, we flit around frantically …
Pastor Arthur Simon comments that: “Ours is a restless culture. Life has become excessively busy for a large portion of the population. Stress is almost built into our body clocks. I am not a fast driver, probably slower than most. But sometimes I find myself hurrying to get somewhere—switching lanes, passing traffic, going through yellow lights—when it occurs to me that the only thing putting pressure on me to rush is my own state of mind…. Our wants are constantly expanding, and our income usually lags behind. More hours to work, more things to do, and more places to go create pressure. Far from producing a sense of inner peace, this style of life nurtures a spiritual void.”
The next to last words Jesus utters on the cross are: “It is finished.” A simple word in the Greek text of John 19: tetelestai. The verb tense speaks of something that has been accomplished with results that are ongoing! What Jesus accomplished on the cross has effects that are in force and active and real today. And, what did He accomplish? Just the night before the crucifixion, Jesus sat in the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed, asking God the Father if there was another way. Faced with prospect of such suffering, He humbly asked one more time: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) What was the task that Jesus had finished? In a word: redemption.
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23-25)
What this means for us is that “it is finished” – our search is over. There is meaning and grounding in the midst of all the chaos and uncertainty of the world. Jesus’ death answers the questions. The meaning of our existence is relationship with God and Jesus provided for our return. We can let go of our frantic pace and desires to fill the void. Our deep longing for purpose and substance and meaning has been met in Christ. Yet, how often do believers in Jesus still live out of that restlessness produced by anxiety rather than live out of the rest produced by knowing that “it is finished”?
In 1 John 4:18-19, we learn that: “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” The generalized anxiety that we feel seeks for meaning, and at deep places in us, we wonder if the chaos and uncertainty is punishment. We ask: did I do something wrong? How can I atone? The love and reconciliation that we have in Jesus meets those fears head on and takes away our shame.
At our core, we long to be clothed and covered, safe and secure but this world sends us on a wild goose chase. The hope of things being “finished” is expressed beautifully in the words of Jesus in Revelation 3:18 that He has “white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen.” The theme of being “clothed” is found in 2 Corinthians 5 as well:
For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So, we have the Spirit to remind us and nurture within us a sense of calm and peace and love in the midst of the chaos. Today, take a few minutes throughout the day to rest in the reality that it is finished, that His love for you is deeper and more real than what you see around you. Experience the reality that the search is over as you pray this simple prayer:
Father, thank You for meeting my fear with your love. Jesus, thank You for suffering for me that I might be reconciled to God. Holy Spirit, clothe me with the knowledge that I am safe and secure no matter what goes on around me. Amen.
“I thirst.” John 19:28
As Jesus hung on the cross on Golgotha (an Aramaic word meaning “skull”), He suffered in every way imaginable: spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and physically. It was through His sufferings that we are healed (1 Peter 2:24) by being united in relationship with God. And, it is also through His sufferings that we learn how to engage and endure our own sufferings.
Everyone goes through suffering at some point in their lives and for many there exists an ongoing element of suffering throughout life. For some it is chronic pain or illness and for others a prolonged period of estrangement from loved ones. Some suffer the pain of exile from their homeland and others deal with poverty or joblessness.
In the simple words, “I thirst,” which Jesus uttered upon the cross, He left an example of how to suffer with grace and trust.
“For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” 1 Peter 2:20-21
The thirst He experienced evidenced that He was physically undone by the crucifixion. He lost so much water through the sweat and the tears and hours without food and drink that He became dehydrated. He lost so much blood that His body went into shock. Extreme thirst is a symptom of shock and dehydration. And, in all of this, He remained faithful.
Just after Jesus shared that He was thirsty, He was offered a sponge of sour wine. He then lowered His head and gave up His spirit. Earlier in the crucifixion scene (Matt 27:34), Jesus was offered the same wine and He refused it. It was common for the soldiers to give the person being crucified a wine mixture that would help deaden the pain. Jesus refused to run from any part of the suffering and taking the drugged wine would have been an escape, a way to numb the pain.
Every day, we are given opportunities to deaden our pain, to run from suffering. However, suffering and sacrificing is a part of what it means to love and share and give. As we experience sufferings in this life, we find that God’s presence and love in our lives is sufficient:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
To experience the weakness that leads to strength in the Lord, we have to be fully present in our sufferings and hardships. God leads us through sufferings so that some things can die and other things can be birthed in our lives. Is it possible that we don’t know God’s love and presence more fully in this life because we are more focused on managing our pain than seeking God in the midst of our pain? Macrina Wiederkehr put it this way: “Every time I say no to the birthing and dying that is set before me at the table of daily life, I seem to hear the echo of Jesus’ words to the woman at the well, ‘If you but knew the gift of God … ’”
In what ways are you tempted to run from suffering? How might you meet God where you are today rather than seeking to escape? Writer Dorothee Soelle shares the beauty of finding God “in the void”:
We don’t have the choice of avoiding suffering and going around all these deaths. The only choice we have is between the absurd cross of meaninglessness and the cross of Christ, the death we accept apathetically as a natural end and the death we suffer as a passion…. If in the night of despair the soul does not cease loving “in the void,” then the object of its love can rightly be called “God.”
Meet Him in the emptiness, in the thirst … it is there that He becomes real and His love becomes all that you need. When we numb the pain, we also numb our ability to feel and experience His love.
Prayer for loving “in the void”:
Father, I desire to experience your grace as sufficient rather than numbing my pain. Give me the strength to see how I run from suffering so that I might stop and therefore trust you in the void. I rejoice in how You are shaping Me into Your image for your glory. Amen.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46
From all eternity, God has existed in community – that glorious reality called Trinity. God exists in a relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit in such a way that there are three and yet God is one. The concept defies math and transcends human, finite comprehension but teaches us so much about the nature of reality.
First, God is relational at His core. Second, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Love is the essence of His character in such a way that He is not just “loving” or one who engages in the act of love but He is love. Love is His identity that permeates His being. Finally, this love is the motivation for the actions that flow from the Trinity. The Trinity created the universe as an act of love. Because of the eternal, infinite love between Father, Son, and Spirit, they decided to create humanity in order to share the glory of that love. Love is like that: it demands to be shared.
And so, as God created, He made the first humans in such a way that they enjoyed unbroken, unhindered access to Himself. Those first humans, described in the early chapters of the Bible, only knew loving trust of their creator. They walked with Him and talked with Him. Then, sin entered the picture, and sin is simply doing life apart from God. From then on, humanity struggled with isolation and loneliness and confusion which led to fear and hate and self-protective strategies for doing life.
Jesus entered human history in order to bring redemption to the broken relationship between Creator and His creation. As He went to the cross, the mission was glorious:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24)
Something that God the Son (Jesus) had never known was the anguish and suffering of separation from God the Father and God the Spirit. In taking our “sin” (the results of doing life on our own) on Himself, He experienced a breach in the eternal relationship of love. And so, He cried out on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” It was a statement of deep despair. The physical sufferings of the cross were brutal but nothing compared to the torment of feeling isolated and alone.
He voluntarily, in love, took upon Himself the horror of being alone and its ultimate consequences so that we would never have to live isolated and alone ever again. This is the healing that His wounds produced. We are invited to receive the forgiveness of sins as a gracious, loving gift and then move back into enjoying unhindered access to Him (Hebrews 10:19-22). This is why God can say “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
How will you enjoy the gift of unhindered access to Him today? Are you feeling alone or isolated? Remember that the Trinity invites us to do life with them. We may feel forsaken but there is a deeper reality we can trust. Even more, an experience of His love is ours to enjoy through prayer. Franciscan writer Ilia Delio put it this way: “Through prayer, I am drawn into the dance of the Trinity.” It is participating in this dance that the remnants of our wounds are healed and transformed as we learn to be loved and to love in return.
Pray a simple prayer today (throughout the day):
Father, I am so grateful that I am no longer separated from You because Jesus endured forsakenness for me. Give me the courage to trust our relationship when I feel otherwise. Speak to my heart and tell me what’s on Your heart. What are you doing? What do you want me to notice? Amen.
This is a prayer that allows us to dance with the Trinity and experience the love we were created to enjoy. “For your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43
Not surprisingly, grace once again flowed from the heart of Jesus to those around Him while on the cross. Situated between two criminals, Jesus is mocked as the first criminal shouts “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The irony of the question and statement was that Jesus was indeed providing salvation by the very act of being on the cross. But, the blindness of the one man didn’t lead Jesus to call down fire from heaven or to hurl insults in return.
The second criminal rebukes the first as He says, “Do you not fear God?” He shares that they have done something to deserve their cross but Jesus had done nothing wrong. Next, that second criminal utters a request that is at the core of what we all desire. He asks:
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
In this simple statement, he is acknowledging the Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the promised One – “the desire of the nations” (Haggai 2:7). Whether we have fully come to the place of identifying it or not, we all desire to be with Jesus. We all desire to do life with God. It is the desire that makes us human and a desire that we often deny.
John Ortberg writes: “What always drives us, at the soul level, is that if I believe I cannot trust God for the satisfaction of my soul, then I will take my soul’s satisfaction into my own hands. I may not acknowledge that even to myself.” For the second thief, He was at the end of his rope. He no longer had any ability to take care of His own needs and in that moment of vulnerability he reached out to Jesus.
And, Jesus did not say, “It’s too late” or “You should have thought about that before you committed the crime.” Instead, He showed infinite mercy and grace as He gently says:
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Do you believe that being with Jesus, doing life with Him, is the satisfaction of your soul? When you reach out in simple faith, not able to bring anything to the table, He responds with “Yes, you can be with Me.” And, the hope of heaven is the hope of getting to be with Him.
Often, we settle for less than our heart’s true desire. Are you willing to be boldly vulnerable and ask God for what you really desire? To do life with Him … to be with Him.
Take a few minutes today and pray:
Father, I acknowledge that I am not only at the end of my rope but apart from You, I have no rope. I often take my soul’s satisfaction into my own hands but my prayer today is that I could be with You and do life with You. May I experience the “paradise” of living life in Your presence today as I look forward to eternity with You in heaven because of the salvation that Jesus provided on the cross. Amen.
“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” Luke 23:34
As Jesus of Nazareth hung from the cross, He looked down and offered forgiveness to those who had tortured Him, mocked Him, and finally nailed Him to the pieces of wood. In an act of extreme grace, Jesus looked past their ignorance and even past their desire to be forgiven.
Romans 5:5 shares that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Just a few verses later, we’re told how: “but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” His love for us was extended while we were sinners – ignorant of our need and committed to our own agendas. When we reached out and received the gift of forgiveness that Jesus offers, we were still ignorant of the totality of our need because it is infinite but He still graciously gave.
Frequently, as followers of Christ, we find ourselves not experiencing the love of God that has been poured into our hearts. David Seamands, in his book on forgiveness, writes: “Many years ago I was driven to the conclusion that the two major causes of most emotional problems among … Christians are these: the failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and the failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people … we read, we hear, we believe in a good theology of grace. But that’s not the way we live. The good news of the gospel of grace has not penetrated the level of our emotions.”
How do we ensure that grace has penetrated to the level of our emotions? How do we actively live in His grace and love and forgiveness? Simone Weil writes: “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”
There was an initial “void” or experience of emptiness that lead to that initial reception of His love. How is that void growing in you today? Is there more and more need in your life for His love? Often, as we go on in our life with Jesus, the perception is that maturity means we have it more together and more figured out. The opposite would seem to be true as the experience of His love in our depths requires a greater experience of our need for Him. Seeing the “void” or empty spaces grow requires letting go of things that we use to fill the void on our own. Our lack of experiencing His love and grace is predicated on self-love and self-protection.
Spend a few minutes asking the Father what you are using to fill the void on your own and then ask Him for the strength to let go of those things so that you might experience His love that has been poured out in your heart.
Through the ages, appealing to the “voice of God” has been used to justify everything from the silly to the profane. In addition, simply saying “God told me” tends to be a conversation stopper … if God tells someone something, how can you argue with that?
The idea that God speaks to people is as old as humanity itself but claims have been routinely met with skepticism from both believers and non-believers alike. From one who doesn’t believe in the existence of God, rejection of the concept makes sense. However, for those who believe, why would there be skepticism? The reasons range from over-reaction to abusive and sensationalistic claims of hearing from God to sincere theological belief that while God may have spoken in the past He does not do so today.
At the heart of the Gospel (good news) of Jesus is the reality that the experiential divide between God and man has been bridged. There is a real, loving experience of God promised to those who have come into a relationship with Jesus. Colossians 1:27 describes this truth as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The incredible hope is that the God of the universe spiritually dwells within us. This suggests the relational reality of presence, real presence! With presence comes the joy of communication. In John 10:27, Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” So, how exactly does this work? How do we listen to His voice?
When we listen to Jesus, it is the Holy Spirit who communicates the words of Jesus to us. In Romans 8:14-16, the Apostle Paul shares that: “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” We are led by the Spirit as He “bears witness” with our spirit about our identity as beloved children of God. Bearing witness is real communication. It doesn’t promise an audible voice but some sort of communication that is understandable. Perhaps, the best way to understand the communication is that of a gentle, discernible nudging in our spirit. 1 Kings 19 describes God speaking to Elijah as the sound of a gentle whisper.
Two questions certainly emerge from the idea that he speaks in a gentle nudges in our spirits. First, why doesn’t He speak loudly, in undeniable ways? What makes the most sense is that God never wants to force anything on us but desires a real relationship where we are free to choose. Yelling or screaming generally leads to forced submission or rebellion. God desires our hearts. He wants us – not forced submission – so He speaks quietly. The second questions revolves around how we know if it is actually the “voice” of God and not simply what we want to hear? Certainly, discernment is needed and required. 1 John 4:1 encourages us: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
How do we develop the needed discernment? At the heart of our discernment is the text of Scripture. We can test and affirm what we are “hearing” by the Word of God. And we can trust that God does speak to our hearts because He abides with us. (1 John 3:24) Our abiding with Him is experienced as we obey His commands. In this mutual abiding (or, indwelling), we communicate with Him.
So, at the heart of our “listening” must be the Biblical text. The Spirit leads us in our application of God’s written word and also leads us in the experience of our relationship with God. Like any real relationship, current and relevant communication is needed. Over time, that communication may come through silent presence like an “old married couple” sitting on the porch enjoying one another without a word needing to be spoken.
Robert Mulholland suggests a beautiful way that we can interact with Scripture that engenders this kind of relationship:
“The how of the role of scripture in spiritual formation is not so much a body of information, a technique, a method, a model, as it is a mode of being in relationship with God that we bring to the scripture … I suggest that your top priority be to listen for God. Seek to allow your attention and focus to be on listening for what God is saying to you as you read … Listen for God to speak to you in and through, around and within, over and behind and out front of everything that you read. Keep asking yourself, ‘What is God seeking to say to me in all of this?’ By adopting this posture toward the text you will begin the process of reversing the learning mode that establishes you as the controlling power who seeks to master a body of information. Instead, you will begin to allow the text to become an instrument of God’s grace in your life. You will begin to open yourself to the possibility of God’s setting the agenda for your life through the text. Not only will this exercise begin to transform your approach to reading (and prepare you for the role of scripture in spiritual formation), it will also begin to transform your whole mode of being in relationship with God in a way that will enhance genuine spiritual formation.” (Shaped by the Word)
As we live in a posture of listening throughout our days, what kinds of things does the Spirit tend to say to us? At the core of what we hear is that we are His beloved. (Romans 8:14-16) This is the gentle consistent whisper that we receive from the Spirit. In addition, Gordon Smith suggests the following categories in his book, The Voice of Jesus:
- assurance of God’s love
- conviction of sin
- illumination of our mind regarding Scripture
- guidance in times of choice
He desires for us to live in a real relationship of love and the heart of what He says regards the nature of our relationship, barriers to that relationship, and how we can live with attentiveness to that relationship moment by moment. He loves us deeply and only specific communication can catapult us into the transformation that love provides. The beautiful truths of Scriptures can be deeply trusted but it is His gentle whispers that allow us to know.
How do we best listen? Anthony deMello offers:
“There are few things that help so much for conversing with Christ as silence. The silence I speak of is, obviously, the inner silence of the heart without which the voice of Christ will simply not be heard. This inner silence is very hard to achieve for most of us: close your eyes for a moment and observe what is going on within you. The chances are you will submerged in a sea of thoughts that you are powerless to stop – talk, talk, talk (for that is what thinking generally is, me talking to myself) – noise, noise, noise: my own inner voice competing with the remembered voices and images of others, all clamoring for my attention. What chances does the subtle voice of God stand in all of this din and bustle? … Your tolerance of silence is a fairly good indicator of your spiritual (and even intellectual and emotional) depth.” (Contact with God)
Don’t neglect the gift of real communication with the God of the universe! Live with a listening posture and the fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. And more than that, the fruit is relationship with God Himself – who is the true desire of our hearts.