1 John 2:7-11 – Love, Not Hate

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing, and the true light is already shining.

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. (New International Version)

It ought to be abundantly clear that hate has absolutely no place in the Christian’s life. Hate is never justified for any individual or group of people. There are no exceptions.

Love, however, is the consummate Christian virtue. The highest of all truth in Christianity is the grace that is bestowed on us through the love of God in Christ. We, in turn, reflect our Lord’s grace by loving others, no matter their gender, race, creed, or ethnicity.

Yet, we are all familiar with hate. Everyone has hated another, and others have hated us. Unfortunately, hate is ubiquitous throughout the world.

Let’s face it: You and I have people we just don’t like. And maybe for good reason. After all, if you are being gaslighted by someone, or have been abused, mistreated, or oppressed by a person or group, then it takes no effort in disliking them, even to the point of despising them in your heart.

As much as other people need to change, the Apostle John places the burden of change to fall on us who claim the name of Christ. Love must begin somewhere. Let it begin with me.

The bald fact of the matter is that we cannot change another person. We can only control ourselves, and a lot of us don’t do a very good job with that. Christians are to learn to speak and act in the loving ways passed on to us through the gospel. We are to become skilled in the ways of Jesus, which is the way of love.

I fully understand this is not easy. In fact, it is downright hard. Forgiving another, even ourselves, can be a long painful process. Making the choice to love again, or love my enemy, is no small thing. Love must always be our default and de facto response to everyone. Otherwise, our hearts will grow cold and hard. And we will become the very people we despise.

There is a shadow self, dwelling within us all. There are murky places in our hearts where darkness resides. We cannot afford to ignore those places. If we pretend there is no shadow self and keep up appearances, then we actually give the darkness power to come out of us through hateful speech and actions.

The “shadow” is a concept first coined by the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung (1875-1961). Jung describes the shadow self as those aspects of our personality we choose to reject and/or repress. In other words, we all have parts of ourselves we don’t like—or that we think others won’t like—so we stuff those parts down into our unconscious psyche.

So then, the shadow self is a collection of things we toss into the closet of our hearts, lock the door, and forget about them. But they’re still there. And they still exert a great deal of influence from inside that dark closet.

We must be willing to face the shadowy parts of ourselves, to face the dark thoughts and feelings of secretly harming another (or ourselves), nursing a grudge, harboring bitterness, or holding onto an offense, as if it were a security blanket.

Whereas some may believe all our unwanted emotions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences are tightly hidden, they are not. Instead, the telltale sign of the darkness slipping out sideways into the world is hate. And that insidious hate typically takes the following forms:

  • Harshly judging or criticizing others by taking a superior posture over another. The critic, however, doesn’t know they are really castigating themselves.
  • Rebuking others as a common practice. Pointing out another’s “sins” is only a projection of one’s inner darkness onto the other.
  • Having a quick temper. Getting angry and belittling those who cannot fight back or respond is really self-loathing slathered onto someone else.
  • Being the victim in every bad situation. Victimization is a terrible thing. And when someone who isn’t really a victim claims to be one, it diminishes and invalidates the help that true victims need. This is the shadow self’s insecurity coming out – needing attention so that the incessant pounding from the inside of the heart is silenced.
  • Doing whatever is needed to get what you want. If that entails being mean, nasty, and hateful to achieve a desire outcome, then that is what is done.
  • Expressing implicit biases and prejudices. Anyone different is a threat to the shadow self. That other person might expose what’s inside me. So, the other gets treated with subtle digs, demeaning behaviors, and discouraging speech to keep them from getting close.

We need healing from this awful malady of hate.

The good news is that light is also available, and within us. Even in the blackest of hearts, there still remains the little spark of God’s image, way down in there. And it only takes a small Bic lighter to penetrate the darkness.

God’s glory is brighter than the brightest sun. A mere glimpse of such glory is more than enough to lay any heart bare and dispel the darkness.

The love of God in Christ is meant to be received, and then given to others. Fortunately, God has an inexhaustible storehouse of grace, mercy, and love – which means we can keep receiving and keep giving. We’ll never run out.

The shadow self sees only scarcity, so it holds onto resources in the belief there may not be enough. The true self, however, living into the grace and mercy of Christ, rightly discerns that God’s kingdom is a place of abundance. We are enhanced, not diminished, whenever we do the opposite behaviors of the shadow’s propensity to hate:

  • Encouraging and helping others. Pointing out another’s strengths and affirming their good behavior is a liberal practice in God’s kingdom.
  • Showing empathy. Being able to put oneself in another’s shoes, along with the willingness to sit with another’s pain, are common practices of the loving Christian person.
  • Doing whatever is needed to build up the community for the common good of all persons.
  • Including others, especially those who are different than me, by making room for them at the Table and giving them a voice.
  • Forgiving others, just as Christ forgave us.

The believer need not be blinded by hate but can love from a place of healthy self-awareness.

Loving heavenly Father, I thank you for looking beyond my faults and loving me unconditionally. Forgive me when I fail to love others in the same way. Give me eyes to see the needs of the difficult people in my life and show me how to meet those needs in a way that pleases you and glorifies the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Luke 9:51-62 – The Cost of Following Jesus

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.

As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (New International Version)

“The will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men and women should defeat their enemies by loving them.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

In his earthly ministry, Jesus made it clear to the large crowds of people following him that the life of a disciple is of utmost importance. People are to discover what following Jesus truly entails. They are to count the cost of Christian discipleship.

Following Jesus in Christian discipleship requires radical obedience. 

Love of family must not stand in the way. Jesus insisted our primary loyalty must lie with following him over every earthly relationship. To follow Jesus means that we will not use family responsibilities to avoid obeying Christ or use other loyalties and commitments to work and/or school as a reason to lay down our cross. 

This talk of Christian discipleship might smack of being like a cult. I don’t believe it is. Whereas a cult typically requires a radical withdrawal from the world so that the leader has complete control over the group, Jesus requires a radical engagement with the world.

Following Jesus is meant to impact the world with grace and love. Jesus went out of his way to not be like other leaders who use power, control, and gaslighting as the means of ruling and leading. Instead, Jesus shares his power with others. Christians are to bless the world and be involved in it.

The call of Jesus to Christian discipleship not only takes precedence, but it also re-defines the other loyalties we have. 

This call involves some level of detachment in order to pursue following Jesus. All of life is to be infused with being a disciple of Jesus. If we insist on making other commitments and loyalties as high a priority as following Jesus, we will find ourselves torn between two masters. 

Several years ago, I took a trip with some other church leaders into the Canadian wilderness. We were so far out in the boonies that we needed special first aid training because, if someone got hurt, it would be hours before help could come. 

We canoed the lakes and carried our backpacks and canoes between lakes for an entire week. Whatever we took with us, we had to carry. Some people thought they needed all kinds of clothes and other accessories. Not far into the week, they quickly began to leave things along the trail and learned, over time, that what they thought was important in their life, wasn’t really important to what they were doing.

It’s good to get back to basics and do what is essential. And what is of most importance is following Jesus. 

An un-salty disciple is worthless. Making a profession of Christ, without counting the cost, is foolish. Christian discipleship was never designed to be easy; it was intended to be a public display that Jesus is Savior and Lord in every area of life. That means we will struggle with questions, such as: 

  • How do I be a faithful follower of Jesus in my family? 
  • How do I be a disciple, and do the work of discipleship at my job? 
  • How do I practice following Jesus in my neighborhood, and everywhere I go?

If we do not plan to follow Jesus at home, at work, in the neighborhood, and in the world, we won’t, because all kinds of competing loyalties will take over.

Christians need to be very intentional about being disciples who loyally follow the words and ways of Jesus.The going will get difficult. And that’s okay.

“Jesus has many who love his kingdom in heaven, but few who bear his cross. He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering. He finds many to share his feast, but few his fasting. All desire to rejoice with him, but few are willing to suffer for his sake. Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion. Many admire his miracles, but few follow him in the humiliation of the cross.”

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

“Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus (Luke 14:27)

Joy comes not by pursuing happiness; it comes through discovering that to live is to die to self. Until we come to grips with that reality, we will likely be frustrated with our circumstances and other people.  

So, rather than trying to fit Jesus into our calendar, we are to let our calendar fill-out around the center of following Jesus. If Christians feel too busy for prayer; or for daily reading of Holy Scripture; or for loving one another; or for making disciples, then they have lost their way and must listen to the call of Jesus to be his disciple.

How, then, shall we live? What shall we do?

“Jesus stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other people and things. Christ is the Mediator, not only between God and people, but between person to person, between humanity and reality.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Imagine that in our heart is a big conference room including a big table, leather chairs, coffee, bottled water, and a whiteboard. A committee sits around this table in your heart. There is the social self, the private self, the work self, the sexual self, the recreational self, the religious self, and others.

The committee is arguing, debating, and voting. They’re agitated and upset. Rarely can they come to a unanimous, wholehearted decision.

We tell ourselves we’re this way because of our many responsibilities or our high level of stress. Yet, the truth is that we are internally divided, unfocused, hesitant, and feeling trapped. 

One way of dealing with this situation is to invite Jesus to come sit as a committee member. Give him a vote, too. But then he becomes just one more complication.

A better way is to say to Jesus, “My life isn’t working. Please come in, become my CEO and fire my committee, every last one of them. I hand myself over to you. I am your responsibility now. Please run my whole life for me.” 

Being a disciple of Christ is not just adding Jesus; it is also subtracting the idols that are in my heart. 

Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart; it is for those who humbly acknowledge that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. This is the path of Christian discipleship. Let’s give Jesus his due: our very lives.

Gracious and almighty God, all hearts are open to you, all desires known, and no secrets are hid. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit so that we may perfectly love the Lord with all our hearts and magnify the holy Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20 – I and Thou

I pray to you, Lord God,
    and I beg you to listen.
In days filled with trouble,
    I search for you.
And at night I tirelessly
lift my hands in prayer,
    refusing comfort…

Our Lord, I will remember
the things you have done,
    your miracles of long ago.
I will think about each one
    of your mighty deeds.
Everything you do is right,
and no other god
    compares with you.
You alone work miracles,
and you have let nations
    see your mighty power.
With your own arm you rescued
your people, the descendants
    of Jacob and Joseph.

The ocean looked at you, God,
and it trembled deep down
    with fear.
Water flowed from the clouds.
    Thunder was heard above
as your arrows of lightning
    flashed about.
Your thunder roared
    like chariot wheels.
The world was made bright
by lightning,
    and all the earth trembled.

You walked through the water
    of the mighty sea,
but your footprints
    were never seen.
You guided your people
    like a flock of sheep,
and you chose Moses and Aaron
    to be their leaders. (Contemporary English Version)

“A person becomes whole not in virtue of a relation to oneself only, but rather in virtue of an authentic relation to another.”

Martin Buber

We all have experienced what it means to be in distress. Whether it is physical pain, financial stress, mental agony, spiritual duress, or emotional overwhelm, the feeling of being distressed is inevitably a part of the human condition.

Questions abound whenever we are in throes of distress: What do I do? How do I cope? From where does my help come? Is there hope? Will this ever go away? Why is this happening?

We don’t know what the psalmist’s distress was, but he was in trouble up to his eyeballs and as anxious as can be. His feeling of being trapped and caught between a rock and hard place was palpable. So, he looked for deliverance.

In 1937, the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber wrote an insightful book entitled “I and Thou.” Buber postulated how people exist in the world and how they actualize that existence. We engage the world through both monologue and dialogue. For Buber, “all real living is meeting.” In other words, to exist, to live, is to encounter another and relate to a “Thou.” We only have meaning in relationships. We only have our being in God.

The psalmist acknowledges there is a “Thou” besides his distressed “I” – that this Thou will hear, make a difference, and open a way of deliverance. There are four actions the psalmist decides to do in his distress, actions which put him in a vital dialogue with the divine “Thou.”

I pray

Prayer, at its heart, is a dialogue with God. From the place of our spiritual poverty and bankruptcy, we beg; and God gives us the kingdom. To be a spiritual beggar, pleading for our needs to be met, knowing we have no way to repay, is a posture which God delights in.

Great blessings belong to those who know they are spiritually in need. God’s kingdom belongs to them. (Matthew 5:3, ERV)

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. (Matthew 5:3, MSG)

I Search

In the I and Thou relationship, the search works both ways.

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways….

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:1-2, 23-24, NIV)

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8, NRSV)

I Remember

The psalmist intentionally sought to recall the mighty works of God, especially in delivering the people from slavery and bringing them to the Promised Land. In our forgetfulness, we get lost in our troubles and our perspective becomes skewed. We cannot see beyond the end of our nose. Remembering, however, grants us a fuller picture of what is happening in light of the past. It brings us out of the lonely “I” and into the relationship of “I and Thou.”

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 

Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Hebrews 10:32-36, NIV)

I Meditate

Pondering and thinking upon God’s deeds enables praise to arise from us. It fosters the I and Thou relationship, bolstering and buoying our faith through life-events which produce our distress.

I lie awake thinking of you,
    meditating on you through the night.
Because you are my helper,
    I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 63:6-7, NLT)

Thou Art Worthy

The psalm ends with no resolution to the personal distress of the psalmist.

Whether there is a happy ending, or not, isn’t the point. It’s the process, the journey of moving through our troubles and discovering lessons from both the presence and the absence of God, which makes all the difference. We learn to pray, search, remember, and meditate because of and despite our troubles. We learn to relate to God and proclaim that Thou art worthy.

Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. (Revelation 4:11, KJV)

Amen.

Galatians 4:8-20 – It’s All About Grace

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you! (New International Version)

Grace is the most wonderful spiritual reality of all. It is forgiveness, freedom, faith, acceptance, and love all rolled up in a package given specially to you and me.

Grace is also terribly hard for a lot of folks to wrap both their heads and their hearts around. It is scandalous, subversive, and stupefying.

It was hard for the Galatian Church. Having embraced the grace of God in Christ for their deliverance from guilt and a shameful past, they then set their lives on the law to work out their sanctification. In other words, the Galatian believers did a sort of half-repentance; they turned from useless ways and were saved by grace, then turned around and decided, like a dog returning to it’s vomit, to go back to the law for the governing rule of their Christian lives.

If grace was good enough for salvation (which it was) it’s also good enough for sanctification, to be the chief operating force of the Christian’s life and ministry (which it is).

“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.”

Simone Weil

A life filled with endless rules and regulations is unable to receive the life-flowing life-giving stream of grace. Grace is even so wondrously powerful that it is the force which breaks all other lesser forces and takes over.

This was the Apostle Paul’s experience. Having been the ultimate rule-keeper and law-abider, he was completely overtaken by a tsunami of grace. It stripped him of all the laws which kept him from Christ and the gospel. Grace changed his mind, his heart, and his life. He would never be the same again.

So, with the confidence of grace behind him, Paul could implore the Galatians to be just like him. I wonder if any of us could say the same.

Paul was a committed follower of Jesus – so much so that he ached and longed for others to embrace a life of grace, just as he had. It was actually painful for Paul to see others held by the cold grip of the law and not the warm embrace of grace. Like a mother about to give birth, he was laboring and working hard to give spiritual birth to those that would become like Jesus.

If you have experienced a transformed life in Jesus Christ, as if you have been born again by grace through the Spirit, then you likely feel and resonate with the travail of Paul. Knowing the elixir of grace, you want everyone to drink it in and be inebriated with its effects. You want it so bad that it hurts. You desire it to the point of exclaiming, “I beg you to be like me!”

You may spend many of your days with family, friends, neighbors, or co-worders who are strangers to grace. Either they are stuck in the clutches of the law and are fearful stick-in-the-muds because of it, or they simply do not know what they are missing. 

It is good to regularly ask ourselves, “What am I afraid of? Will this thing matter in the end? Is it worth holding on to?”

Grace will lead us into our fears and emptiness, and grace alone can fill them up, that is, if we are willing to stay in the void. We must become comfortable with asking questions for which we might never get answers.

People of deep faith develop a high tolerance for ambiguity and find less and less a need for the certainty of rules and regulations. Grace teaches us to swim in the river of mystery and find our home in faith.

Gracious God, may you weave your way into the lives of those who need you the most, so that mercy will be more than a theological idea. Work in me in such a way that I can stand with Paul and encourage others to be like me, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.