And first, of His title to our love. Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God's claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19).
Bernard of Clairvaux, 1190-1153, On Loving God, Chapter 1 (CCEL internet library, Posted by Paul Halsall (HALSALL@MURRAY.FORDHAM.EDU)).
Why is it important to love God? What are the reasons for doing so?
There was a question that arose in the later part of the Middle Ages: How could a person be serious about following Christ in the mechanical and nominal state of the church of the time? One could join a monastery. But by this point, even that could become routine. One could rebel against the whole system. But many were not willing to go that far. One person who tried to come up with another alternative was Bernard of Clairvaux. He spearheaded a new movement called mysticism, which, without changing the church structure, attempted to promote the idea of a love relationship between the individual and God.
Promoting a relationship between the individual and God was a good thing. But changes in the church organization were also needed. The result of this was that, rather than seeing a love relationship with God as something every believer should have, it was seen as something reserved for the few and the elite, who had leisure to pursue it. While the established church organization tended to pump out nominal Christians like an assembly line, there were only the specialized few who pursued a deeper relationship. Now for Bernard and his immediate followers the main idea was the contemplation of the greatness of God's love. Martin Luther claimed that Bernard had a clearer idea of the love of God even than Augustine. But there were others in the movement who went to extremes, inventing complicated mental gymnastics, which even in some cases involved the harsh treatment of the body, to get to God. Some even held that God was the sum total of all things and that we were part of God and, by following their procedure, could be reunited with God. But that was the distortion of a needed positive emphasis.
Bernard was not perfect. He advocated the Crusades and preached that people should join the Second Crusade (which, through no fault of Bernard's, turned out to be a total disaster). He also worked against those who, for whatever reason, rebelled against the church organization. But his emphasis on the love of God was a much needed concept and paved the way for the Reformation. However, he was not willing to question the existing church structure; the Reformation was needed for that.
It is sometimes easy to feel like a failure as a Christian.
We start out in the Christian life with great plans. We are going to accomplish
marvelous things for God. And somehow our life does not turn out the way we
thought it would. We feel like we are caught up in the daily grind. And we have
long ago given up on our dreams. Or we live for the day when we will get our
act together and truly live for God. Moses found himself in such a position
(see Exodus 2,3). He had thought to do what he could to help his people, the
Israelites, who were enslaved by the Egyptians. But his attempts to accomplish
this failed and ended in his losing his place in Egyptiansociety and becoming an exile. And he ended
up tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the Sinai desert. Until he encountered
a burning bush.
When we think we are failures, we need to remember who our
God is. One of the first things God did for Moses was to tell him His Name. God
said His Name was “I Am who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). This means that God is the
eternal One, the One who does not change. It also means that because He does
not change, He is always faithful to His promises. What does that mean for our
lives today? We must remember that if we have put our faith in Christ, He has
saved us (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9) and made us His
children (John 1:12,13; Galatians 4:4-7; Romans 8:14-17). He is also at work in
us to change us into the people He wants us to be (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians
2:13; Colossians 1:29). He also says He will guide and direct our lives to
accomplish His purposes through them (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6;
The problem is that God’spurposes for our lives may not match our purposes, and God’s timing may not
fit our timing. Therefore, it is important to trust God ,that He is at work in
our lives right now to accomplish His purposes (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms37:3-6; Isaiah 40:31). Now I am not saying we
should not ask if there is something differentwe should be doing to better serve God. And I am certainly not trying to
justify sinful behavior that we need to admit to and repent of (Proverbs 28:13;
1 John 1:9; 2 Corinthians 7:10). But we
need to put aside the idea that we are failures and recognize that God can meet
us where we are at to take us to where He wants us to be. I wish that I could
promise everyone a burning bush. But sometimes we do not see the things we want
coming about, at least in our lifetimes (Hebrews 11:13-16; 2 Samuel 7:1-17; Jeremiah 45:1-5). But we can trust God,
that He is at work in our lives to accomplish His will.
God hates hypocrisy. This is clear
throughout Scripture (Matthew 23:25-28; Malachi 1:6-8; Isaiah 65:2-5). And our
immediate response may be, “I am not like that; I am a better person than
that.” Or I admit I have some places that I fall short, but give me a little
while and I can fix them. But Scripture says we are all sinners (Romans 3:23;
Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9). Also, it affirms we have not arrived yet, even as
believers (Philippians 3:12-16; 1 John 1:8-10; Galatians 5:17). The solution,
then, is to honestly admit our sin and bring it to Christ for forgiveness
(Ephesians 1:7; Romans 3:24-25; 1 John 1:9). This does not mean simply
condoning sin and not responding in obedience based on God’s love for us (1
John 4:19; Romans 12:1,2; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15), trusting His power to work in
us to change us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Galatians 5:16). But I
do think it must mean not pretending we are something we are not or trying to
fake a level of holiness we have not yet attained. There is a careful balance
here. Martin Luther spoke of the necessary balance between law (God’s
commandments) and gospel (God’s promises of grace). Go too far one way, and we
end up following our sinful desires; go too far the other, and we end up in
self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
There are a few things that help me
to find that balance. The first is to remember the full content of God’s law
(Matthew 5:17-48; Romans 7:7,8; James 2:10). God is interested in not just
external observance, but perfect obedience from the heart. None of us has
achieved that yet. Also, I need to remember that I have right standing before
God not on the basis of what I have, but of what Christ has done (1 John 2:1,2;
Galatians 2:21; 2 Corinthians 5:21). We need also to remember that the Christian
life is a journey from the person we are to the person God is making us into,
and we are not there yet (Hebrews 12:1,2; Colossians 2:19; 1 Timothy 4:8). If
we do this, it will help us to be serious about changing our lives, without
needing to fake that we have arrived.
This will also affect the way we
deal not only with ourselves, but with other people. We will be more willing to
reach out to those who need Christ, without having our own self-righteousness
get in the way (Matthew 9:11-13; Luke 19:10). It will also affect how we deal
with other believers who have fallen into disobedience (Galatians 6:1; Hebrews
12:12,13). For it is only when we realize that we are guilty of the same kind
of things we want to judge in others (Romans 2:1,2) that we will have humility
to deal with sin rightly, whether in ourselves or them.
Wherefore, lest we fall into the same error, and be laughed to scorn, arguing thus with Greeks whenever we have a controversy with them; let us charge the Apostles with want of learning for the same charge is praise. And when they say that the Apostles were rude, let us follow up the remark and say that they were also untaught, and unlettered, and poor, and vile, and stupid, and obscure. It is not a slander on the Apostles to say so, but it is even a glory that, being such, they should have outshone the whole world.
John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians, Homily III, 8 (translation revised by Rev. Talbot W. Chambers, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff, Hendrickson Publishers, 2012, First Series, Vol. 12, p. 14)
How do we learn to trust in God rather than our abilities? What kind of opinion should we have of ourselves?
One other approach to who Jesus Christ was is that He did not exist. His followers simply made Him up to serve their purposes. The advocates of this view frequently trace the ultimate source back to the various pagan myths and claim that Jesus is merely another example of such myths. Will this stand up to examination?
How could Jesus' followers manage to convince people that a person who never existed had existed and that they should follow Him? And how did they keep the critics from finding out and blowing the scam? All the questions about how they could have got away with running a scam (see my previous post on the subject) would have come home to roost, only many times worse, because the person involved did not even exist. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 was running a major bluff before a hostile audience if the 500 witnesses he claimed for the resurrection of Christ did not exist. But he was running a colossal bluff if Jesus Himself never existed. There is also the question of why the apostles should take such a risk. Mystery religions were common, and it would have been easy to place the events of the life of Jesus either in some place and time outside real history or in great antiquity that could not be checked. Why put them in the governorship of Pontius Pilate, which was easy to investigate? Some have claimed that the gospels were intended as a novel, a work of fiction. In this case, we must either believe that people confused fiction with reality to the extent that they were willing to die for it in a really short period of time. Or that someone, after the persecution had started, would have been willing to put out as a work of fiction something that could get them and other people killed. Neither of these seems plausible to me.
This view frequently advocates the idea that the story of Jesus was based on those of various pagan gods. But if you check the primary sources and not the secondary sources, which are frequently full of speculations, you will find that the similarities with these other deities are only general and superficial. And these general and superficial similarities are not surprising. If God revealed Himself to mankind in the very beginning, it is not surprising that there should have been enough passed down to produce general similarities in all belief systems. But the kind of exact similarities which would indicate that the story of Jesus was simply cribbed from other religions do not exist. Nor is it clear that people would choose to die for just one more mystery religion, no different from the rest. But if they had solid reason to believe Jesus was a real person, who really did what He said He would do, that makes all the difference. And if so, we are left once more with the options: the scam-artist, the madman, or the Son of God, who was who He said He was. Take your pick.
Using a treadmill may be good
exercise, but do you ever feel that your whole life is a treadmill? There is
nothing so well calculated to make your whole life a treadmill as to make your
chief goal the pursuit of money and the things money can buy. Trying to
accumulate money can drain all the hours of your time. It can cost you your
family, your friends, your health, your integrity, and your spiritual life.
Further, there is no such thing as enough money or stuff, and there is always
some new thing that everyone has to have. Even if we manage to amass a degree
of wealth, we then have find ways to invest and manage it so we do not simply
run through it. Then in the final analysis, we die and leave that accumulated
wealth for others to fight over. And part of the problem is, we know this, yet
we continue anyway. We are like cigarette smokers who know that what they are
doing carries heavy health risks, yet they will not quit. Therefore, while the
Christian church, and even the secular world, have long sounded the warning of
too much concentration on the pursuit of money, the problem persists. Now I am
not suggesting we all become Amish and go back to older, simpler times. But how
do we deal with the issue on a reasonable basis?
Now I do not want to give the impression
I have this subject all figured out. My wife would be able to tell you how I
have Lincoln thumbs from pinching pennies too hard. But here are a few hard-won
suggestions for dealing with this problem. We need to start by trusting God in
the area of our finances (Matthew 6:25-34; Psalms 127:1,2; Proverbs 3:5,6).
This is easy to say and hard to do, especially when the bank account dips a
little low or an unexpected expense comes up. Even if things seem to be going
well, we can always worry about future problems and expenses. But we need to be
willing to trust those to God (Philippians 4:6,7; 1 Peter 5:7; Ephesians 6:18).
Also, we need to deal with pride, the pride that is worried and envious if we
are not doing as well as someone else (Proverbs 16:18; 29:23; 1 John 2:15-17).
Sometimes it may better to accept a lower level of material prosperity to have
time for the things that are important. But finally, we need to remember that
what money or possessions we acquire are only temporary (2 Peter 3:10-13; 1
Timothy 6:7,8; Luke 12:16-21). Also, it is good discipline to practice giving
some of it away, for I have found that when I do, it ends up having less of a
hold on me (Proverbs 21:26; 2 Corinthians 9:7; Ephesians 4:28). This is of
course much easier to say than it is to do. Now if you will forgive me, I have
some pennies to pinch before they get away.