Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Like the World -- But Love God - 1 John 2: 15-17

John, the apostle writes about getting real with God. But first we must make a choice. Either we look to God revealed in Christ, or we look to something in this world.  Jesus said in Matthew 6: 24, "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  Mammon is all the peace, security, pleasure, and influence that money can buy or assist in receiving. It is the world and all we know in this world. 

Loving God requires that we stop loving everything else. This is spiritual marriage. The more we try to love God and the world, the more miserable we become. 

Before we go any farther, we should make sure what John is saying. First, what does he mean by “love”?  

There are several words in Greek for love.  The Greek word sturge means “enjoy.”  If I sturge chocolate ice cream, then I prefer it over other kinds of ice cream. Another word is eros, meaning to consume to possess. If I eros ice cream, I want to eat it. John uses the word agape. Agape means to make a choice to pursue it, and to build my life in seeking it. Eros is a decision to pursue. I may like ice cream and even desire to eat it, but until I’m willing to break my diet for the sake of ice cream, then I don’t love it. I like ice cream but I love health more. 

God doesn’t say we shouldn’t “like” the world. But worldly enjoyment is best found not by pursuit but by accident. We don’t seek the beauty of a sunset—it is just there. Everything God has made in this world has an element of joy and pleasure about it. To love the world is to make a choice to devote our lives to the pursuit of worldly things. If we do not pursue it, then pleasure will come. If we pursue satisfaction in worldly things, then the pleasure will elude us.  

The second word we must define is “world”—cosmos in Greek. Watchman Nee wrote that “world” has three meanings.

The third definition of cosmos is the fallen world—the world controlled by Satan.

Second, it is all the material things-- not just sex and money, but also bunnies, butterflies, and ice cream.

 Third, the “world” is also the worldwide social network, which is any and all human organizations and associations, including countries, schools, sports teams, and clubs as well as churches, families, and Facebook friends.  Even an organization such as the church or a Christian ministry is still part of the world. Churches and families can become idols, too, if they are loved more than God. Anything we exalt above God and serve above God is the world. 

John doesn’t just say don’t love the evil world. Don’t love the good world, either. Satan doesn’t tempt us only with evil, but with good. He wants us to abandon the greater good for the lesser good. In this way, choice by choice, he tempts us progressively with difficult choices that eventually lead us to evil.

We see this in Luke 9: 57-61. Three men wanted to follow Jesus. One turned back when he found out that Jesus had no home, and another turned back to bury his father. The last man turned back to say goodbye to his parents. Jesus did not wait. There’s nothing wrong with having a home, burying your dad or kissing your mother, but all of them are worldly concerns, and God is greater than all. These three picked good things, but they lost the best.

Satan will if he can lead us away from prayer by suggesting that our prayer time would be better spent packing school lunches or walking the dog. He tempts us off our diets not with candy, but with the birthday cake of a dear friend. Later, it gets easier for us to abandon our resolve for worse reasons, but only after we’ve abandon it for some seemingly “good” thing. 

Family can come between you and God.  Your house, your car, your job, your lawn, and even the good things you do for others can come between you and God, because they are all part of the world. Everything that touches your life may become an idol if you love it too much.

Enjoy the world, but just don’t love it. 

Look at another word in verse 16—“desire” or in Greek epithumia. “Lust” is really more accurate. Thumia means “desire.” With the prefix epi it is a strong or overwhelming desire.  We enjoy the things of this world, but when we start following them, then we come under their spell, and lust after them.  At some point, this becomes an overwhelming desire, and we cannot break away from them without great effort and the help of the Holy Spirit.

 I watched a show where two men were testing how to escape from quicksand. Quicksand is ordinary sand, but underneath the ground there is surging water. When you step on it, the sand pushes into the water, liquefies, and creates a suction that pulls you in.

To test this, they filled a large vat filled with sand and put hoses near the bottom, with a run off system for the liquid sand. One of them stood on top. At first, the sand supported him well. But when they turned on the water he immediately sank to his knees, then his hips and finally to his waist. He was trapped. They brought in a crane and tried to pull him out, but not even a crane could move him. The force required to move him would break his legs.

 John says that the world is passing away. He does not mean that it is the end of the world, but that the world underneath its calm exterior is falling apart. Underneath the surface, the world is passing away. When we put our love in worldly things, then we commit to a dying system. We get sucked into it, and it takes us down with it.  At some point, it becomes almost impossible to free ourselves from the downward pull of worldliness. Only by letting go do we have the strength to break the suction into the world.

  “For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

John classifies worldly love into three categories. First, there is the “lust of the flesh”—things our body physically craves. These include food, drugs, alcohol, comfort, shelter, and sex. We crave a physical feeling and will do anything to get it. Then there is the “lust of the eyes”—those are the things that give pleasure from watching. These include television, pornography, video games, sports, and the endless search for novelty. It even includes books and learning and the desire to discover the secrets of others. Gossips and busybodies are caught up in the lust of the eyes. Finally, there is the boastful pride of life—this is the insatiable desire for reputation. The desire to be someone important drives our consumer culture. It is this pride that drives us to dominate others.

In Philippians 2, Paul says that Jesus, being God did not act as if he were God, but humbled Himself, taking the form of a servant. How few of us would be satisfied being an anonymous servant!  Yet Jesus took on that role. 

By humbling Himself, Jesus never became trapped in pride and worldliness. It is impossible for worldly pride and ambition to ruin the lives of people who really don’t care.  All that mattered to Jesus was that He did the will of His father, not that He looked good in the eyes or the world, or received any reward for it.  The more we love the Father, then the less appeal the world will have for us.

Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. Trusting in Him is the most important thing in the world. But the first step to coming to Jesus is to let go of the world, and not just the bad things in the world, but the good things as well.  We must let go of our pride, self-assurance, egotism, lusts, desires, and false hopes in deliverance through worldly things and methods. 

There’s a story about a man who fell off a building. Halfway down, he grabbed hold of a flagpole sticking out of the side of the building.  He shouted to the heavens, “Help, is there anyone up there?”

God answered from heaven. “Yes son. Do you trust me?”

“Yes, Lord.”

“Then let go of the pole.”
“Help!” he cried. “Is there anyone else there?
That’s us. We must let go of what we know and trust a God we cannot see. Satan doesn’t need bad things to tempt us away from God if good things can work as well. Jesus will save us, but first we must let go.

 “Do not love the world, or the things of the world. If we love the world, the love of the Father is not in us.”


Friday, October 2, 2015

Staying Healthy for a Lifetime - 1 John 2: 12-15

John has been talking about walking in the light. Then he seems to launch into a strange digression, talking about fathers, young men, and children. After that he repeats himself and mentions the same three groups again. What is John trying to say? John is saying that not everyone is at the same level of spiritual maturity. We have to therefore adjust to accommodate different levels. We must meet people where they are in their walk with God.

 These levels cause a lot of problems in the church. Let me illustrate. Imagine you and your extended family all go on a nature hike. This hike includes children, old people, and young people.  After about an hour, the family group gets spread out along the trail.

The little children bring up the rear. They are so excited about being in the woods that they stop and look at every tree and flower. But they’ve never been in the woods before, and they don’t know that they’re supposed to stay on the trail. They can’t tell the difference between a pretty flower and poison ivy, or a brown snake and a rattlesnake. Someone has to watch them closely, and they move very, very slowly. 

Then there are teenagers and young adults. They know more about the woods—in fact, they think they know everything. They like to move fast and cover a lot of ground. They’re frustrated with the others who lag behind. Sometimes they get into trouble by getting too far ahead and often storm down the wrong trails. More often than not, they abandon the rest of the group. 

The old folks—the fathers—are in the middle.  They don’t care how fast they go, they just enjoy the road and the company. Often they hold back to take care of the children. They don’t care when they get there. They just keep moving on.

So we soon get three groups, which are young people in the front, old in the middle, and kids to the back. This isn’t a hiking party, it’s a parade. If these three groups don’t learn to walk together the family falls apart. 

The same thing happens spiritually. Spiritual “kids” are new believers. They trust Jesus, but they know very little about the Christian walk. Spiritual children frequently stray from the path, because there are few spiritual directors to guide them. Someone has to show them how to walk like a believer. If they are left to themselves, then they don’t last long.

“Young men” are believers who have learned enough to avoid the obvious sins, but not enough to overcome the less obvious ones. They grow impatient with childish lessons and want teaching that is broader and deeper. They are also impatient with the old-timers who seem to move much too slowly.

“Old-timers” have lived enough to know their limits, so they proceed with caution. Life to them is about who they are, and not what they do. They are interested in enjoying the process more than achieving the results. They want to share their wisdom with others, but the kids and the young people resent their interference and suggestions.  They have neither the enthusiasm of new believers, nor the drive of the young, but they do have wisdom and experience.

Churches respond to these three groups differently. Sometimes a church will pick one group and base everything on their needs. 

A church can gear everything to the seekers and new believers, focusing on evangelism and rudimentary discipleship.  But in the process they are just covering the same material week after week, until everyone else gets bored and leaves. 

A church can appeal to the Spiritual athletes by giving deep theological teachings, and stirring challenges towards world transformation, calling for utter, selfless commitment. But the spiritually immature can’t meet those challenges without some serious help, so most of them drop out. The old timers get frustrated too, because they are just trying to keep their old bones together day by day.

A church can focus on the old-timers by giving non-challenging messages about comfort, enduring trials, and “what a friend we have in Jesus.”  They can’t understand why the others have to change the things that are so comfortable to them.

 So the Body of Christ splits into three groups, without much communication between them. But these groups all have problems, because they are incomplete alone. We need kids, young people, and old-timers. The kids of one generation become the old timers of the next. We are all maturing into old people, and as we do our spiritual needs change. Churches have to build for a lifetime of ministry to people which involves ministry to all three groups.

John doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about these differences, he just acknowledges that they exist. He doesn’t tell us any shortcuts to maturity or any way to rejuvenate old-timers. Instead, he focuses on spiritual health instead of spiritual growth.

Growth and health are different. You can be healthy at six or sixty, or unhealthy at any age. Health is something that you must maintain. The same ingredients of health are true for any age. You need rest, emotional balance, a good diet, and lots of exercise. The same is true in our spiritual lives just as it is in our physical lives. 

In 1 John, the apostle is talking about staying spiritually healthy. We see that reflected in what he says about these three groups.

1.  Emotional Balance and Rest.

“I write to you little children because your sins have been forgiven.” Developmental psychologists tell us the first lessons we must learn in our lives is unconditional love and acceptance from our parents. If we fail to get that, then it affects our mental and physical health for the rest of our lives. Christians learn God’s acceptance from the Cross of Christ. God loves us unconditionally, which He expressed by giving us full forgiveness through Jesus. Many Christians have never learned, so they live with a constant sense of guilt and responsibility. They can never just rest in the Lord, because they do not believe God loves them. They can never do enough to satisfy the wrath of God. They have never learned that God loves them just as they are.  

The first step to God is the step to the Cross. Once we have learned God’s acceptance, then everything else makes sense. “Just as I am without one plea/ but that Thy blood was shed for me/ And that Thou bidste me come to Thee/ O Lamb of God, I come.”

Jesus loves you just the way you are. If you haven’t come to understand that, then you will never be healthy spiritually. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but He does expect us to understand that He loves us. We don’t have to do anything—He just loves us. All we do is love him back. 

                                                      2.  A Good Diet         
“I write to you fathers, because you have known Him from the beginning.” We know him by daily partaking of a three-course meals, which is studying God’s Word, prayer, and the theology and practices of the church.

Sometimes I run into people who say they don’t need to study God’s Word. The Bible is 1300 pages long. It’s amazing that anyone who studied it for a few years in a Bible school could claim exhaustive knowledge of it. Furthermore, the meaning of the Bible changes with age. Every time you read it, you discover different levels of meaning. A classic book is defined as one which can be read a hundred times, and we will still get something new. Read the Bible a hundred times, and you have spent 1,300,000 minutes or 61,666 hours. Until you have done that, you still don’t know the Bible. 

Prayer is direct communication with God. It is much more than saying grace at a meal or a short devotional in the morning. It is lifelong learning.  Martin Luther once said that his time was so filled with business, and his mind so filled with worries and concerns, that he could not survive without spending at least four hours a day in prayer. Yet the average pastor today spends about three minutes in prayer. What did Luther know about prayer that we do not?  He understood that prayer is a study, not a hobby. It takes a lifetime to master.

John says, “You have known Him from the beginning.” He has been a continual witness to Christ over centuries. How we interpret the word and what we learn from prayer are both filtered through the glasses of our own experiences. In order to get beyond our own biases, we must look to the witness of the historical church. Peter reminds us in 2 Peter 1:20 that no Scripture is of private interpretation.

There is no question that we may ask about the Bible or prayer that hasn’t been asked and answered over a hundred times. There is a huge body of knowledge and wisdom that has been passed down to us through the ages. Theology is learning how others have interpreted great truths. God reveals Himself to the whole church together. His great truths have been around since the beginning.

                                                      3.  Exercise.                                                                 
“I write to you young men, because you are strong, and have overcome the Evil one.”  How do young men get strong?  They work at it! In Philippians 2: 12 Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

There are three kinds of spiritual work. The first is self-control. The early church did a lot of fasting, not in order to get some prayer answered, but to curb their appetites. It’s not easy to separate ourselves from the world, but it is necessary. We must learn how to resist the Devil, and resist him with vigor, if we want him to flee from us.

Don’t resent self-control, but embrace it. If we resent the pains of correction, then we are condemned to a hellish existence. But if we thank God for correction, then it propels us to a higher state of joy. 

The second is evangelism. Evangelism is an attitude as much as an action. It is the desire to tell everyone everywhere--all of our friends and families about the Lord. All of us together strive to fulfill the challenge of the Great Commission.

The third work is the transformation of the world.  In Genesis 1 we are told that humans were created to have dominion over the world. The word in Hebrew is more of stewardship than dominance. We were created to make the world a better place. In the Lord’s Prayer we always pray. “Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done.” Whenever we pray this we are asking for God’s will to be done on earth. That means we are working to make the world a better place, without poverty, pollution, wars, sickness, disease and suffering.

We will never achieve any of this, but than that is the point! Does a body-builder ever stop adding on weights?  Does a runner ever say that his last time was fast enough?  Exercise is supposed to be a continual lifetime challenge.

 As we get on in years, we have to work harder to stay healthy physically. As we get on in our spiritual lives, we must also work harder to stay healthy. We need more prayer, more Bible study, and more spiritual action, not less. We never arrive at perfect peace. We must always be going forward.

Whether you are a new believer or a very, very, old one. We all need spiritual rest, spiritual food, and spiritual action. If we practice these disciplines of life, we can stay spiritually healthy all our lives.     

A Test for Purity - John 2: 7-12

Most books have one key sentence. The book of 1 John has chapter 1, verse 5.
 “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. “
“God is light” is the key metaphor to understand everything John says.
John didn’t invent this picture of God as light.  The rabbis and philosophers of Jesus’ day used it all the time. The Greek philosopher Plato based a whole view of the universe upon it. To Plato, god was photos—light--and He shone through all things. Anything that kept God’s divinity from shining was darkness. Lies and deception cast shadows which keep us from seeing and God.

For the Christians, God doesn’t just shine on us. He shines through us. Many Christians see their relationship to God like a sunbather on a beach, basking in the sun. But we are more like windows in a wall. We don’t just absorb God’s light. We become transparent, so that other people will see God’s light through us.

That’s the problem with the church today. We have lots of sunbathers and few windows. We are happy to catch some rays from God for ourselves, but we are not shining those rays of God’s light on others.   

The quality of our Christian life depends on our transparency.  If we fake a relationship to God or lie to ourselves we are not walking in the light. Phoniness and pretense diminishes our shine. A glass window that gets dirty can be washed, but if we let the dirt stay, it will be a poor window.

Let’s shift metaphors for a while. Recently, one of the local municipalities put out a notice of a water emergency.  The drinking water was tainted by pollution that had seeped into the water line. The water didn’t smell differently or taste differently, but testing showed that the water was unfit to drink. It came out of the water treatment plant pure, but somewhere down the line sewage had seeped into the system. They notified citizens not to drink it until it was fixed.  How did they know there was a problem?  Because they regularly tested the water. Periodically, cities do purity tests on water to make sure they are pure enough to drink. 

John’s book is essentially a purity test for the Christians. Is the divine nature that is flowing out of us pure or is it polluted? If we are not reflecting the love of Christ in all our thoughts, actions, and speech, then something is wrong.   

John’s purity test is very simple. It’s love. God is love, that’s His nature. If what comes out of us is not love, then we are very poor reflections of God, who is love. 

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Greek word agape, which is one of three words generally translated as love in the New Testament. It’s divine love—the kind God has for us. Agape love is our purity test. Paul describes what agape is like in I Corinthian 13:  4-8

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Let’s reduce this definition further by using four words—empathy, charity, humility, and honor.

Empathy is the ability to feel what another feels.  Psychologists tell us that the chief characteristic of a loving person is the ability to feel empathy. Robert Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence lists empathy as the most important characteristic a person has to be successful in the world. 

If you can see a person hurt and feel nothing, then you don’t love. If you see a person hurt and feel something, then you may love them. 

Some people do not have empathy for others. They are called sociopaths. They cause a lot of damage in the world, and in the church. They do not care what other’s feel. They are only interested in themselves. They cannot love, because they do not care about others.

Charity is love in action. The choice we make to put others above our own. It is not an emotion but an act of faith and will.

Imagine you are on a sinking ship with your wife and children. There are a limited number of life jackets. Do you put yourself in a life jacket first, or do you make sure your child has one?  If you are a father, then it’s probably a no-brainer. Your child comes first, because you would rather have the child survive than you. It’s an instinctive love reaction.

This is what Christ did. “God loves the world so much, that he gave his only begotten Son” John 3:16.  In love, the highest good of another comes before our own. That doesn’t mean we don’t love ourselves.  It just means that we have made a conscious choice to set another’s good before our own.

That is what we do when we help the poor, speak out against injustice, give our time to charity, or volunteer to do the dishes. We are choosing to set aside our time, money, and reputation for the sake of other people.  Love is a decision to put another’s welfare above our own.

Humility is recognizing that we are not always right, and being able to display it. Paul said that love was rejoicing in the truth, even if the truth was not our own idea. We have no compulsion to always be right or proven to be right. We can allow others the credit and a right to their opinion.

We all have a pretty big narcissistic streak in us. We think we are right, and we like to prove that we are right. A humble person knows that he or she is not always right, and even if the humble person is right, then he or she does not need to prove it. We are able to humble before others, even those who do not agree with us. 

Many people feel an obligation to constantly impose their opinions on others, without any interest in what others think (Facebook is full of such people). We should not insist upon our own opinions, even if we think that we are on God’s side. Being right is no excuse for being rude, boorish, and opinionated. People have a right to their own opinions, and should be given credit for courage and intelligence, even when they are wrong.  They treat every disagreement like a football game, with bragging rights for winning, instead of as a mutual search for the truth. They insist on being treated as teachers and experts, instead of learners and seekers.  

It is better to lead a person to discover the truth than to browbeat them into accepting a truth they don’t understand. We should by our humility show people a better way, a loving way, instead of letting our tempers rule.

Honor is treating others with dignity regardless of who they are or what they have done. Every person, no matter who they are was created in the image of God and deserves to be treated with dignity. We should treat everyone with honor, from the homeless man on the street to the president in the oval office.  It’s not that they always deserve it, but because we chose to be honorable ourselves. It is a choice we make to give honor, and an expression of divine love, who honors all people. 

Last year I attended a seminar on work. The speaker made the point that all work, no matter what our job, is a calling from God, and valuable. One of the great tragedies of modern man is that we do not recognize that our work, even if it seems pointless is valuable. A garbage man is of equal value to society as a bank president. A maid is as valuable to the world as a teacher.

Jesus went a little further than that. In Matthew 25: 40, he said,
   'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'
 He declared that the honor given to Jesus Himself, which is higher than the honor given to parents, preachers, or kings, should be given to the sick, homeless, and imprisoned.  Honor is simple respect—respect for one’s needs, opinions, thoughts feelings, and dreams.   

Do you want to know if you are walking in the light? Check what is coming out of you. Is it empathy, charity, humility, and honor? If it is, then your heart is pure, and your reflection of God’s divine nature is pure. If it’s not, then you aren’t walking in light. 

John puts it this way in verses 2: 7-11:

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.

9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

Some people who think they are being spiritual like to piously proclaim, “I don’t hate everyone.”  That’s never true, and I am suspicious of anyone who says it! We should press them on this and say, “What about your no-good brother or sister?  Do you love him or her?”

Again we reply with a lie. “O sure—well, I don’t actually hate them--not really!”

What is hate?  We would rather leave “hate” undefined.  Hate is not really an emotion. That’s not what the Bible means by hate. It’s not a feeling but rather the absence of feeling. Hate, like love is mainly a choice. Murderers do not usually kill people because they “feel” hatred towards their victims. They kill because they feel nothing. If we can look at a person and feel no empathy, give no charity, have no humility, and give no honor, then we hate them.

How do we stop hating and start loving? By opening our eyes to Jesus--God revealed in Christ. While we were still sinners Christ died for us. Once we see how Jesus loves us, then we just do the same to others.  Love for Jesus’ sake is walking in the light.  We just copy what He did, and we are walking in the light.