To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Wednesday, September 01, 2004

If We Love Him . . .

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you" (John 14:15-17).

This passage is one of my favorites, because in these verses John brings together the two wings of faith, so to speak—love and works. Love is often perceived as the "soft" side of discipleship, as the "theory" side of being a Christian. Works, on the other hand, are the "hard" side of discipleship, the acts of putting faith into action. This passage shows how closely related the two are. Yet there is a deeper richness here. And at least one warning is in order to keep us from misinterpreting what Jesus is really saying.

You notice what Jesus did not say? He didn't say, "If you obey me, you love me." He almost said that in v. 24, but even there, we have a distinction. Jesus did not say, "If you obey me, you love me." In other words, simply because someone seems to be doing the things God wants us to do doesn't necessarily mean that person really loves God.

That's the easiest mistake in the world to fall into—thinking that if we do the right things, then we're OK. We may work and work to convince God, others, and ourselves that we love God. The trouble is, we can go through the motions all day long and not really love God in our hearts. That seems to have been a common mistake among the Jews in Jesus' time. In Mt. 23:23, for example, Jesus warned the Jewish leaders, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others." Actions are important. But concentrating our energy on crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's and then declaring ourselves OK with God is the opposite of the right approach to serving God.

Here's an example. Suppose I decided I wanted to live the life of an Olympic gold medalist—say in archery. I could go onto E-Bay and get a pretty good replica of a gold medal. I could move to a small town where people are trusting, hang my medal on the wall, and advertise in the local paper for archery lessons. I could give motivational speeches about hard work and believing in yourself to churches and schools. After a while I might actually come to believe that I had really earned the medal hanging on my wall. The only problem is, I haven't. I would only be going through the motions.

The world is full of people trying to prove their love—that they love someone and are worthy of being loved in return. There's a song on the radio right now about this very thing, about a young man who's spent his whole life trying to prove to his earthly father that he's good enough. But no matter what he does, his father never is proud of him, never shows his love for his son. I went on the Internet to try to find that song, and I couldn't. And the reason I couldn't is that the Net is overflowing with hundreds of thousands of essays, poems, stories, and testimonials about exactly the same thing. Millions of pitiful overachievers are still trying to prove they love their parents, or spouses, and desperately trying to earn love in return. It's a losing game, because the whole focus is backwards.

Unfortunately, we see the same game being played in churches. It's the dirty little secret of many churches that Christians are spinning their wheels trying to prove they really love God. Some of the church's best workers, I'm afraid, do their work out of a perverted sense of love—this same kind of losing game of proving love. The rest of us, the lazy ones, don't say anything because if we did they might stop carrying such a load for the rest of us. But that kind of works-to-prove-love approach can easily bleed over into something that's positively sinful—doing good works to prove to others that we love God. Jesus addressed this effort when he warned, "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 6:5). Jesus, as we see most clearly in John's Gospel, focuses more on the heart than on external obedience.

Well, if John 14:14-17 isn't about working harder, then what is it about?

When it came to how to love God, I used to preach, "Work harder, get our sin out of the way so we can love God better." Now this is a very appealing error because it looks so right. In fact, most of us do need to work harder and put away our sins. I need to eat less, read the Bible more, and learn how to wash feet. But those kinds of things won't produce love any more than motivational speaking will produce a gold medal. In fact, the work-harder idea is a grace-denying approach, because it puts the focus on ourselves rather than on God.

How, then, do we truly learn to love God?

Like so much of the Bible, we can find clues to the answer by looking at the context of the verses under study this morning. Notice that woven in among these passages about obeying God (vv. 15, 20, 23, 24) we find words dealing with the Holy Spirit (vv. 18-20, 23). More broadly, Jesus is talking here about relationships—between Jesus and the Father, and Jesus and us through the Holy Spirit. And what does that have to do with loving God?

Simply this. We don't create our love for God. We receive it by the grace of God. Paul told the Romans about this when, talking about justification by faith, he said, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom. 5:5b). That love produces peace with God, joy, and the hope of glory. In a similar vein, John simply said, "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn. 4:19).

Love, then, is a gift from a loving God. We may want it to be something we create, but it is not. It is, however, something we can either hinder or nurture. God's love is accessed through humility. The apostle James said, "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall exalt you" (Jas. 4:10). We aren't exalted by working harder but by falling on our faces in humility before a righteous and holy God. Perhaps the greatest benefit of working, working, for God's love is the realization that those efforts are futile. When we try to prove our love through trying to do enough, we may come to see how our so-called service to God is really self-serving. We may come to see how much of our actions are really meant to exalt ourselves, how we are filled with selfishness and pride. And then, by the grace of God, we may fall on our faces because of our own sinfulness and allow ourselves to be exalted in the right way—by God alone.

In humility before God, Christians may abide in Christ and share in God's love. See verses 14:20-21? This is an "abiding" love—not only in the sense of one that goes on forever, but also in the sense of a relationship—of going through each day, every day, with God. Look especially at 14:23. God will make his home with us. Wow. What a promise.

When we have that kind of relationship—where God gets up with us in the morning and we walk with him all through the day—when we abide in Christ, we have power for living. In our Wednesday Bible study we spent some time talking about prayer "in Jesus' name." Those words are not a formula to end a prayer. They are the promise that those who abide in Christ go through life with his power and his authority (see, for example, John 15:7). If we abide in Christ, our efforts will be successful and our lives will be fruitful.

That's why it's so critical that God's people, those who love him and abide with him, obey him. Imagine what would happen if we didn't. Trying to enjoy his love for us without showing our love for him in obedience—well, that's simply disobedience, grieving God's Holy Spirit. Once we have been blessed by the gift of God himself abiding with us, we simply must obey him. And when we obey in the abiding power of God, there is no spinning our wheels. Our efforts are blessed.

If we abide with him and love him, we will keep his word. And he will keep his word—to give us comfort, power, love, and joy.

God doesn't want his people to be weak and sin-plagued. He wants us powerful, fruitful, loving with his love in action. That begins by admitting we can't do it on our own. The first step is repentance and baptism—being washed clean from our sins by the sacrifice of Jesus in his blood. The step that every Christian must take every day is continuing to admit that without God we are nothing. But that through the abiding love of Jesus Christ, we have the power not only to obey, but to prosper, and be glad.

Preached August 22, 2004

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ


Blogger Howard said...

You hit the nail on the head with this one!
Rom 8:28 And in everything, as we know, he co-operates for good with those who LOVE GOD and are called according to his purpose. NEB

I have also been impressed with Chuck Colesons book, "Loving God" In which the whole theme is obedience to God equals loving God.


1:21 PM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Thanks for the comment, Howard, and please forgive me for taking so long to reply. I'll be reading your blog. Peace.

6:21 PM  

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