“If you love me, you will obey what I command,” (John 14:15)
my thoughts kept coming back to a dear friend of mine. In the Fall of 1992, Wesley was on his deathbed in an Iowa hospital. At the time, I was pastoring a small Michigan congregation and was able to take some time off to go and be with him. I was there for a week, spending my days at the hospital and only leaving his room to sleep for the night. It was my habit to rise about 5:00am and make my way to Wesley’s room where we would spend some quiet unhindered time with each other for a few hours before family members arrived. Wesley was deathly ill and could barely communicate anything above a whisper. Yet, those hours with him were incredible times of spiritual bonding and true Christian friendship.
You see, what was so amazing about my relationship with Wesley is that only a year before, he and I had a strained, difficult, and awkward relationship as he was about as far from God as anyone could be and did not want much to do with a Pastor. Yet, in a matter of a few months, we had become devoted to one another as brothers. Through a series of circumstances that I ascribe as God’s gracious hand, Wesley embraced a spiritual life that was as rich and full as I have ever seen (that is a story for another time). Now, as I sat with him six months later, Wesley was at the edge of his life.
During that week, I watched in the background as day after day, friend after friend, and relative after relative came into Wesley’s room to visit him for the last time. The majority were much like Wesley before he wholeheartedly followed the love of Christ – having made a profession of faith as children, they had long since outgrew their Sunday School belief. With each person, as frail as Wesley was, barely able to lift an arm more than a few inches, he would grab a hold, pull them close and say into their ear: “Look at me! I am dying. Is this how you want to end up?” And then he said to every one of them: “If you are really a Christian and love Jesus, obey him and live your life for him.”
Love and obedience – they go together in Scripture like a hand in a glove. The words of Jesus to love through obedience are part of what we call the Upper Room Discourse, or Farewell Speech. They are the Lord’s final words to his followers before his crucifixion – quite literally being Jesus’ deathbed message to those he loved. These are the words Jesus did not want his followers to forget. The disciples were distressed and troubled over the prospect that Jesus would not be with them, and they needed some focused words to live effectively with encouragement in the days and years ahead.
There are a two truths Jesus said to his disciples (and saying to us) as he was grabbing them and holding them close before his death:
Love is practiced through obedience to Christ’s commands.
Love through obedience is accomplished through the Holy Spirit’s help.
If we are to love Jesus, we will obey him – which begs the question: What are his commands? There are three summaries of Christ’s teaching and commands in the Gospels that encompass loving him through obedience: The Great Commission; The Great Commandment; and, The Beatitudes.
When Jesus first began his teaching and healing ministry, he sat all the people down who were following him and gave them a summary of the Old Testament understanding of God’s righteousness. These are the things, Jesus explained, that characterize a person who loves God:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:12-17, NIV).
Genuine lovers of Jesus are characterized by their: authentic humility; deep concern to the point of tears over sin; gentle and meek spirit toward others; intense desire for personal righteousness and corporate justice; daily life of mercy, purity, and peacemaking; and, willingness to accept adversity for the sake of Jesus. Yes, lovers of Jesus are distinctly and profoundly characterized by grace. To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God is the normal everyday default life-setting for lovers of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus wanted to put all the Law and the Prophets (The Old Testament of the Bible) into a summary that would be easy to remember and understand he said:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”(Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)
What Jesus requires is an holistic love for God. Humanity is meant for wholeness, integration, and alignment between head, heart, and gut – with the glue of love. We are designed to have all of life in parity and balance – work, play, family, and church – because Jesus is Lord over it all, not just the church part. In the totality of our lives, in every relationship, and in every activity, Jesus invites us to grab hold of the kind of love that seeks a righteous agenda based in grace and mercy.
What is more, Jesus gave clear instructions of how to occupy our time on this earth while he is away preparing a place for us so that he can take us to be with him. The gracious and pure living of the Beatitudes and the love of the Great Commandment are to be fully utilized with the Great Commission. Jesus stated:
“All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)
Making disciples is at the heart of Christ’s commands. Every Christian is to be Christ’s apprentice learning the ways of Jesus in all of life, being spiritually developed so that we can be characterized by the Beatitudes and the Great Commandment. Jesus wants lifelong students in the faith, continually learning to love God through integrated and aligned selves in the church and in the world.
This is a big job. In fact, the task is so huge that Jesus left us with the means of accomplishing it – he has given us another “Counselor” to be with us forever (John 14:16). “Counselor” (NIV) is translated in various ways in versions of the New Testament because the Greek term “Paraclete” is a rich word that is hard to encompass with a single English word. Other translations include: “Advocate,” “Comforter,” and “Helper.” They are all accurate words to describe the Holy Spirit. I think the best term to portray who the Holy Spirit is for God’s people is “True Friend.”
A true friend is the kind of person who you can call in the middle of the night and they will answer and listen; will drop everything to come and be with you in a time of need; will say hard things to you in love so that you can be a better person and have a better relationship with them; and, maintains a committed and consistent relationship with you. A true friend is simply a person you enjoy and are deeply thankful for having them in your life.
That is what the Holy Spirit is – the Spirit helps us when we need help; encourages us when we are down; comes immediately to our side when we are in need; and, gives us a good loving kick in the backside when appropriate. The Holy Spirit is our True Friend in the world. The Spirit continually speaks truth to us and leads us into truth. The Spirit will come alongside and apprentice us in the faith and guide us in grateful obedience to Jesus.
Because of God the Father’s love in sending the Son; the Son’s sacrificial love through the cross; the Spirit’s consistent loving presence; and, the triune God’s insistence on living a life of love, Christianity is both duty and delight – and they go together in perfect harmony.
Wesley miraculously lived through his deathbed experience. God was not quite finished with him yet. Wesley’s Christian life displayed that loving assurance and trust in Jesus leads to a no-holds-barred obedience which is grateful and joyous despite the most awful of circumstances.
In the summer of 1993, at 29 years of age, Wesley went to be with his Lord. Not in my lifetime have I personally seen such a complete turn-around of a person so far away from God to a person whose every thought and word reflected the Beatitudes, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission. And I enjoyed a relationship that was totally changed from one of animosity to one that could be characterized as “true friend.” Because of his love for God, Wesley now sees Jesus.
There is only one level of commitment to Christ – the high charge and privilege of duty and delight. A true disciple, a genuine follower of Jesus, loves him and lives an obedient life to the Lord in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we have our lives so planned and pre-determined that when the Holy Spirit shows up to take us to a place of obedience to Jesus, we struggle to realize what’s happening. And we miss what God is doing in this world. At other times we observe the commands of Scripture and feel the gentle nudging of God’s Spirit, yet we either cannot or will not respond out of fear, busyness, or even grief. And then there are times when we are attentive to God’s Word and God’s Spirit and seek to obey Jesus – only to mess up so that we are left wondering if God could ever really do anything in us.
The truth is this: Love conquers all. Grace overcomes everything. Mercy never fails. We are here on this earth because of our True Friend. Even though we walk with Jesus in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of way, the Spirit accommodates to our weakness. To be a disciple, an apprentice, means we keep learning the ways of Jesus under the tutelage of God’s Spirit who patiently and powerfully works within us so that God’s kingdom breaks into this world and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
The Lord treasures the people
who honor him,
the people who wait for his faithful love. (verse 11, CEB)
Early each morning I rise, take the dog for a short walk, make a cup of coffee, then open the life-giving message from the God of the Bible. I read out loud – slowly, mindfully, carefully allowing the words to seep and make their way down into my soul. The Holy Spirit of God gently nudges, sometimes forcefully hurls, me toward a verse, phrase, or word from the text. Contemplating, ruminating, thinking about the Holy Scripture begins to set the trajectory of my day. God is throughout the hours, as I move from one to the next. Sometimes very much at the forefront of my thinking, other times in the background shaping how I speak and act, and always on my heart enlarging it and filling it with his grace.
Most of life is lived in the mundane. The banality of life is the norm. While others run from prayer to prayer looking for miracles and the next big spiritual hit, the one who is patient… waits… and honors God… has a treasure within which transcends language or outward fanfare. The settled conviction of the person in continual communion with the God of the universe peacefully waits for faithful, steadfast, committed, divine love.
There is no description for such a divine/human spiritual relation which exists, giving patience to the penitent and joy to the heart of God. Such love exists beyond the plane of daily news crises and the continual hum of the crowd. Indeed, the Lord God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, has stooped to cup his hands and treasure his creature.
The great medieval mystic, Teresa of Avila, said: “Prayer is an act of love; words are not needed. Even if sickness distracts from thoughts, all that is needed is the will to love.”
Patience is not a bore, and to wait is to be at peace because God is in it. It is good to be full of him.
Over thirty years ago, Chuck Colson wrote a timely and influential book entitled Loving God. In it, he presented a simple yet biblical premise concerning the life of every believer in Jesus: The way to love God is to obey God, period. Everything turns on our listening to God and doing what he says to do. Jesus himself communicated to the church at Philadelphia (not Pennsylvania, but Asia Minor) and affirmed how they obeyed the message. Because of their faithful and steadfast obedience, the Philadelphian believers would be protected and loved by Jesus.
The church at Philadelphia did much more than offer a confession of loving God – they affirmed that confession by obeying Jesus. In my Christian circles, we call this “living into our baptisms.” That is, it is one thing to experience the sign of baptism as being set apart by the Holy Spirit for a relationship with God through the person and finished work of Jesus. It is quite another thing to “live into” this reality by knowing God’s Word and obeying it.
There is much complexity to humanity and its psychology, sociology, and history. But there is at least one simple straightforward Scriptural truth that we all can live into: To love God is to obey God. Therefore, it is quite necessary for us to spend extended times reading our Bibles in order to know them well so that we can obey what it says.
Gracious God, thank you for the message of good news that in Jesus Christ I have forgiveness of sins. Help me to hold onto this gospel through all of the vicissitudes of life so that obedience springs from my heart in all things by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God loves the smell of your sweat. You might stink to high heaven from hard work but for God it is a sweet aroma and sacred incense. God loves it because it brings him glory when we break a sweat loving him with all of our energy (Mark 12:30). Love isn’t primarily measured by words spoken, but by calories burned (1 John 3:18). We are to use all of our strength to love God. Using our hands and our effort is as valuable to God as using our brains.
We should feel free to go hard after God with all our strength. We need not have any hesitation about using our very tangible efforts in work as loving God. But because we only have so much strength and energy, we need to make sure we are not wasting any of our energy on sin. Too many of us waste our energy on things we can’t have and stuff that we can’t control. If we spend a bunch of energy on things like pride, anger, and selfishness then we only end up wasting even more energy on guilt, shame, and regret. Nothing saps our strength more than sin. So, then, we need to keep busy doing the right things.
Loving God with all our strength requires limits and healthy rhythms of life. If we understand the importance and value of hard work, we much too often wrongly think that the answer to most things is to work harder. You don’t do that with your car. You don’t see a red light come on the dash and automatically say, “Oh! there is a problem with my car – I will drive it harder and longer and the problem will go away.”
Some Christians have a bent toward working themselves into the ground, not using their God-given brains to tell them that this is not loving God. Many persons feel the pressure of responsibility, the fear of failure, the obsessive need for perfectionism, and the just plain stress of dealing with people and conflict. So, we ignore our better judgment and put our foot to the accelerator. It is no wonder, then, that people have crack-ups and breakdowns, both emotionally and physically. Some individuals find the shame of failure too unbearable to let up on the gas pedal, and so keep going day after day worried that they might be letting someone down. Wise and rightly ordered priorities come from well-rested Christians. So, it must be remembered that keeping the Sabbath affords an opportunity to put all our energy into loving God in ways that we cannot on the other six days.
On the other extreme, laziness can easily creep in because the classic spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, solitude and silence, prayer and fasting, and giving rarely clamor for our immediate attention. We may have so many other irons in the fire that the very relational activities that help us connect with the Lord Jesus get squeezed out. Tyranny of the urgent is a harsh taskmaster, and we rarely slow down long enough to realize that we have drifted far from God and are in danger of ignoring Christ and his salvation out of sheer neglect (Hebrews 2:1-4).
Let us, then, put all our strength into loving God, rather than simply loving the idea of loving God. All relationships take work. So, if we claim to be Christians it only makes sense to use the best time of our day each day to relationally connect with Christ and seek to connect with other Christians in fellowship. Now is not the time to feel guilty for what you have not done, but to accept the grace that is in Jesus and enjoy his presence and his Church. Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
“What do you have in there worth living for?” That is just one of many quotable lines from The Princess Bride. Miracle Max was trying to find out if he could rescue the young Wesley from certain death. Turns out he was only “mostly dead.” What came out of Wesley when Miracle Max pressed on him was “true love.” It is always a great story: true love is never satisfied; true love conquers all. True love has an insatiable desire to know more and more about the object of its affection. To love God with all of our minds is to want to learn more and more about Him, to know Him better and better. It is to have a constant curiosity about God. And the really cool thing about this is that God has given us the brains to accommodate this curiosity about Him.
The average brain is only the size of a softball and weighs about 3 pounds, yet neurologists estimate that we have the capacity to learn something new every second of every minute of every hour of every day for the next 300 million years. We have the mental equipment to love God.
So, then, to just want to know the right answers about God and Scripture without putting any thinking behind it is to miss the whole point of Christianity. Simply wanting the Cliffs Notes to the Bible and/or perusing God For Dummies is to miss the entire direction of love. Loving God is about curiosity and learning, a desire to know the object of my affection.
Since we are to love God with our minds, we ought to invite questions and curiosity rather than shutting it down. Adults of all stripes: kids and teenagers and college students who ask questions is a good thing; let them flex their brains. There are too many adult Christians in this world that feel threatened by healthy robust questioning. We are not just to fill up with correct information, as if the sheer accumulation of right doctrine is all there is to it. We are to have a deep experiential knowledge of God that leads to learning about him more and more. It is never satisfied, and the learning never ends. Our minds are like muscles – they must be used and exercised on a consistent basis because if we stop learning we stop loving. And I’m not talking about Sodoku puzzles. I’m talking about stretching our minds with reading Scripture and good Christian books. I’m talking about getting into discussions about God, Christ, and the Bible that broadens our understanding and deepens our faith.
We are to love God with all our minds; loving God with half your brain isn’t going to cut it. Some people are dominantly left-brained people, that is, they are bent toward being logical, analytical, practical, and think mostly in concrete black and white terms. There are other people who are heavily right-brained, that is, they are much more artistic, intuitive, creative, imaginative, humorous, even sarcastic, and tend to speak more poetically with lots of satire and metaphors. If we are to love God with all our minds we will seek to use all of our brains, both the right and the left parts of it.
One of the problems we run into is that the mind of sinful people is death (Romans 8:6). Death means separation. They are separated from God in their minds. To have a sinful mind is to have a small brain. The sinful mind isn’t interested in genuine critical thinking – only in stubbornly expressing opinions. Sinful people aren’t using their brains, or only a small part of them. But God wants to sanctify our whole brains. That means we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We are to use all our minds to love Him. That means we will value the left brain orientation of desiring to know the bottom line and being results driven. We will embrace order and discipline, and use all the tools of reason and logic, learning critical thinking skills that can serve us in growing and knowing and loving God and God’s people. But it also means we will value the right brain orientation of embracing mystery, paradox, and gray areas, enjoying the process of discovery and probing the deepest issues of scripture and humanity – all the while being comfortable with asking questions and not always having the answers.
Loving God means we will tap into all our minds, not just half our brains. The Bible itself engages us in a mentally holistic approach. We have, for example, the linear arguments of New Testament epistles, as well as the creative and poetic approach of the prophets and the psalms. We are to combine the right brain value of viewing the Christian life as a road in which we journey along, and the left brain pursuit of the goal to win the prize for which we are called heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Do you love God with all your mind? How can you engage all of your brain to love God? What contribution can you make to God’s people with your intelligence and creativity? Will you seek to have your mind renewed? May your mind be so flooded with God’s grace that the thoughts and words that come out of it is true love.
God sees so much more than we do. Sometimes we forget that. We don’t see like God does, so there are times we wonder where he is. But God does see every obedient act done in secret, each prayer uttered in the privacy of our closet, and all the places where his people have selflessly given themselves to love and compassion. We have a need to see God’s glory. We need to not just see the muck of the world in all its awful muckiness; we equally need a newfound sense of God’s wonder and beauty, to reclaim the soul of Christianity.
To love God with all my soul means the deepest parts of my life are flooded with God’s glory, awed by His majesty, mystery, and beauty. We are to perceive the glory and wonder of God that is all around us. It is to be thankful, deeply thankful for everything – even for the personal hardship and suffering that I face. I’m thankful for it because it is one means by which I can better know God and see His glory. Peter said, Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you (1 Peter 4:12-14).
Apart from Christ we don’t see this perspective, we don’t see the world as it is; we only see the world as we are (and so we think that how we understand things is the way things really are or, at least, should be). Being full of God’s glory makes life, even if it is hard, wonderful because then we see with spiritual perception. The human eye can only perceive light waves between 0.000004 and 0.000007 centimeters long. In other words our visual range is the equivalent of one playing card on a stack of cards stretching halfway across the universe. But God sees the entire range of light, and to love God with all our soul is to see life and reality from His perception of things.
The best way to cultivate a love for God with all my soul and see His beauty is to meditate on Scripture and on creation. Literally take time to smell the roses. If you walk or drive the same route every day, make a commitment each day to see one thing you have never seen before. Then, praise God for it. What is more, every one of us has the privilege and opportunity to read or listen to God’s Word every day. It needs to be as much of a routine as getting out of bed. Each time you open your bible, determine to read it slowly and carefully seeing one thing in Scripture that you have never seen before. Then, praise God for that perception.
We don’t just need a little soul in our love for God; we are to love God with all of our souls (Mark 12:30). Middle class white people with Northern European ancestry (my church) are not known for their soul. There is no Dutch Soul Food restaurant anywhere that I am aware of. I have never seen a German-American Hip-Hop Club. Maybe it is time to change the perception that we Christians have no soul. Let’s not try and domesticate this very basic command of Scripture to love God with all our souls. Yes, it may look different for us than some other people, but it is no less a command. We ought to be so filled with God’s glory and wonder that we unashamedly raise our hands in praise, fall on our knees in prayer and adoration, and chatter all the time about Jesus – Deuteronomy 6:7 says to talk about God and his commands when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. We are to be excited about living for God because God wants us to love Him with lots of flavor!
What moves your soul to action? David Platt, a pastor in Birmingham, Alabama once spent ten days in China. His plan was to move around the country, but he first visited some local house church leaders. He never went anywhere else in the country. They were supposed to meet for a short bible study. Instead, it turned into a ten day 8-12 hour a day teaching of Scripture. After that first day the Chinese leaders asked David Platt: “Would you be willing to teach us about all the books of the Old Testament while you are here?” Pastor Platt laughed and said, “All the Old Testament? That would take a long time.” Here was their collective response: “We will do whatever it takes. Most of us are farmers, and we work all day, but we will leave our fields unattended for the next couple of weeks if we can learn the Old Testament.”
The hunger for God by many around the world is huge and immense. They love God with all their soul to the point of doing whatever it takes to know God better and live for Him. For too many of us, we are conditioned to simply give God our scraps – some of our discretionary income; whatever time we might have left-over from our work and other activities; showing up for church if it doesn’t conflict with something else, as if God were our pet that we just give the table scraps.
Will you do whatever it takes to love God with all your soul? Do you perceive and see the grace of God all around you?