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Monthly Archives: October 2012

When not Loved in Return

Do you meet people who are friendly enough at first, but your acquaintanceship never moves farther than that? You never become more than distant “friends” who don’t actually know each other well. At times, you may even forget each other’s names, let alone remember what is important to the other person, the kind of things true friends should know.

But perhaps you wish you could grow closer with the distant friend. You wish you knew the person better, beyond just a name and basic physical features. And you wish he or she wanted to know you better, too. You wish your “friend” cared.

It bothers me when I meet people who, as much as I try to be friendly, they want none of it. These people do not open their hearts, but hide behind intimidating barriers with signs marked, “Back Off.” Closed people make me think it is better to leave them alone. My self-esteem crumbles. The message is that I’m not good enough. I have nothing to offer. I’m dull, boring, unattractive, annoying, needy, [fill in the blank]. So I tell myself we don’t have enough in common and move my attention to someone more receptive.

I long for personal intimacy with everyone I know, and some may say that asks for too much. Does it? Is that how the world turns, and no amount of effort can push it the other way? I recently realized I only befriend those people who love me back. God has supplied me with plenty of such people who conduct his love. It feels as if God could not bless me more by my friends. These special friends have loved me steadfastly over the past several months, so that I feel undeserving of their generous affection. But because of their love, I’m encouraged to love them more in return. This becomes a reciprocal relationship of intensifying intimacy and warm, fuzzy feelings.

Jesus calls us to love, which my friends and I do well for each other, yet Jesus wants us to love more than just anyone at all. He calls us to love all people. Whether a perpetual drunk, a self-absorbed jerk, an incessant know-it-all, or someone in the deepest pit of poverty, we are told to love them. The poor, the widowed, the orphaned. He does not direct us to the easy-to-love: the caring, the affectionate, the humble, the flattering, the responsible citizen, the good neighbor.

But people who are hard to love intimidate me. I think they probably don’t want to talk to me, anyway. I’m not worth their time; or rather, they are not worth mine. The truth is, I collect around me supporting, friendly Christians who flatter me and boost my self-confidence. They make me feel valued and important. They feed my ego. And if they don’t, the friendship fades.

When one friend became too busy with schoolwork, personal struggles, and a new boyfriend, she no longer had time for me. I assumed she didn’t want to see me. I took it as a hint that she didn’t care about me anymore. I no longer mattered in her life. So I gave up trying and left her alone. If she didn’t have the time for me, I would move on and forget the close friendship we used to have. I told myself that I could still love her from a distance; I would forgive her and bear her no ill will. 

The Spirit examined my heart one night, during that precious time just before sleep when heart barriers lower from their usual daytime duty. He led me to an honest look at my love for others and compared it with Christ’s love, which is always active and working. Christ-like love doesn’t walk away because someone doesn’t show interest at first. Or because a friend grows cold.

Real love holds on. It fights to break through to the hearts of others and won’t stop until it does. It is strong and penetrating, conquering all. This is why romantic heroes who fight for the heroine, and don’t accept rejection, are so popular for movie-goers. They make women swoon in their theater seats.

This heart exam threw me low as only the Spirit’s humbling influence can. Looking back on my treatment of my distant friend, I saw it wasn’t love as Christ would show. Did Jesus give up on Peter when he denied three times even knowing him? And at a time when all of his other disciples had fled and he was about to be sentenced to death? If any desertion could be unforgivable, wouldn’t this qualify?

But that’s not right, at all. Love is not merely a lack of meanness toward someone. It doesn’t simply vow to not hate. It demands more. Once Jesus returned to life, he revealed himself to Peter and again invited his friend to join him in God’s work. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus told him. And Peter did for the rest of his life, leading the early Christian church into an unstoppable movement of salvation through Jesus.

How might we change lives if we persisted in love? Would people see Jesus living in us?

The next day after the Spirit’s humbling, I happened to read Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus had an uncanny ability to sum up truth in few words, and his words still speak to us today. They hit to the heart of the matter:

“‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'”

 

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Posted by on October 23, 2012 in Other thoughts

 

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Surrounded by Fiery Chariots

The books of 1 and 2 Kings can be easily summarized as the sequence of royal assassinations for the crowns of Israel and Judah. Sure, there’s some side plots of Elijah and Elisha, but the rest of it is a king wins the throne by killing the king before him and then “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” during his reign. After some years or just a month, he gets killed by some other guy who wants to be king, and so the tradition lives on. If you’ve read the Harry Potter series, it reminds me of the Elder Wand’s heritage. As Xenophilius Lovegood says, “The bloody trail of the Elder Wand is splattered across the pages of Wizarding history.”

I’m making my way through the history books of the Bible and have progressed up to 2 Chronicles so far. It’s strangely addictive, and I’m surprised how many stories I do not recognize despite a childhood spent in Children’s Church class every Sunday morning. I did know, of course, that the Israelites did quite a bit of fighting in their conquest of the Promised Land and then to defend their property from surrounding nations once they finally settled down. I wasn’t expecting the penetrating presence of murders and executions, directed even by David, the man after God’s heart.

As I was reading 2 Kings, a male friend told me it is one of his favorite books in the Bible. My mind quickly reviewed the killing I had read by then and thought, “Well, of course, a guy would enjoy 2 Kings.” If you like war movies or the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’d probably like 2 Kings, too. There are even child sacrifices–similar to “The Return of the King” when Denethor attempted to burn alive his son, Faramir, and himself on a funeral pyre (2 Kings 3:27).

But’s that enough for my personal distaste for blood. One of my favorite stories so far in the history books comes from 2 Kings 6. In the story, an intimidating army from Aram comes to capture the prophet Elisha. His servant wakes up, sees the army surrounding them, and immediately feels afraid–understandably so. There’s a lot to scare you in this world, and a great army out to kill you is one of them. Figurative warriors scare me in surprise attacks sometimes–perhaps a distracting temptation, a frustrating person, impossible circumstances.

Well, the servant does the only thing he can think to do; he goes to Elisha and asks what they’ll do. Elisha’s response? “Do not be afraid.” I can imagine the servant’s immediate response: “Elijah, do you see those warriors and chariots?” Two people outnumbered by hundreds if not thousands. How could he not be afraid? For some people, that would be asking the impossible.

Still undisturbed, Elisha prays that God would open his servant’s eyes. Elisha wasn’t blind. Actually, he was the only one who saw reality. When his servant’s eyes opened to the spiritual realm, he saw “the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17). And even these were not necessary for their protection, because all Elisha had to do was pray that God would then blind the army. They were never in danger.

How often do we forget the ones we have on our side, those fiery chariots ready to defend us? How often do we forget that we are not only fighting opposition in this physical world? We have more enemies than mere humans, the “great army,” since the devil has his own forces out to capture us. But even knowing that, we never have to fear. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). And behind those fierce warriors fighting for us, we have God himself, who can strike a whole army with blindness at a simple prayer of someone trusting in him. How can we be afraid?

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2012 in Other thoughts

 

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Spurgeon and Reading Context

Spurgeon near the end of his life.

Spurgeon near the end of his life. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lately, I’ve been doing some reading of Charles Spurgeon. Actually, I’m currently spending most of every day working at Olive Tree Bible Software on a long-term project that requires reading a devotional by Spurgeon. Once I finish the devotional, I will then proceed to read his other books and sermons. This may take a while.

For those who don’t know, because I certainly didn’t, Spurgeon was a preacher from nineteenth-century England, whose printed works and collected sermons are expansive to say the least. He started preaching in a church at just 20 years old and grew so popular that he later spoke to congregations of thousands at a time. becoming known as the “Prince of Preachers.”

Perhaps his vast popularity had to do with his talent for creating perfectly suited metaphors and allegories to explain or emphasize his points. His writing is understandably powerful and moving if you can get past the archaic language of “thee”s and “thou”s.

English: From Spurgeon's Sermons Fifth Series;...

Spurgeon preaching at Surrey Music Hall, Kennington, 1858. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even more impressive than his eloquent writing is his pure ability to take any verse of the Bible and connect it to the central themes of Christ, the Gospel, and our salvation.On October 6 in the devotional, for instance, Spurgeon writes on Numbers 12:1, where it says, “Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite.” Most people would take this verse at face value and simply understand that Moses’ sister and brother-in-law had issues accepting their sister-in-law. But Spurgeon goes further. He uses this verse as a parable of how, greater than Moses irrationally marrying a woman outside of his own people and disapproved by his family, the Lord chooses to love us, even us undeserving and worthless people. Spurgeon explains:

“Knowing as we do our secret guiltiness, unfaithfulness, and black-heartedness, we are dissolved in grateful admiration of the matchless freeness and sovereignty of grace. Jesus must have found the cause of His love in His own heart, He could not have found it in us, for it is not there.”

He seems to have a special affinity in the devotional for taking passages from Song of Solomon. He always sees the betrothed, bride, or wife as we individual Christians and the Church; meanwhile, her lover or husband represents Christ. This is one interpretation of Song of Solomon’s deeper symbolism, however, other interpretations read the book as merely a collection of poetry about either one couple through their relationship’s stages or else reflections from several different couples in love. Whatever the original intent of the book or its ultimate meaning, Spurgeon shows how even the passionate refrains of the longing bride may be applied to our own relationships with God.

Spurgeon’s interpretations can be much more problematic and debatable, though, when he bases an argument on a verse obviously out of context. On October 19, he addresses 1 Corinthians 3:1, which reads, “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit, but as people who are still worldly–mere infants in Christ.” As you continue to read the passage, it is clear that being an infant in Christ means to still remain worldly, jealous and arguing with other Christians. Paul does not speak kindly of baby Christians, but Spurgeon hangs onto that phrase, “babes in Christ,” and encourages those weak in faith to “cheer up” because they are equal in grace to “full-grown” Christians. He says if he were poor in faith, he should still “rejoice in the Lord and glory in the God of my salvation.”

Now, I agree that young Christians are as justified as any other child of God, but this was not Paul’s point. This particular verse is the introduction to a scolding of such infants. Instead of merely rejoicing that they are saved, they should continue to grow in faith and leave behind their worldly baby binkies. But I cannot criticize Spurgeon too much, because the truth is I often do the same. I want to make a point, or perhaps find the perfect verse describing my mood to post on my Facebook wall, so I look up something that sounds good and ignore the surrounding context.

Admit it; you do the same. And if you happen to read the whole passage of your chosen verse, you feel disappointed when you realize you can’t fit that verse into your box. It doesn’t actually mean what you first thought. It doesn’t prove your argument for or against predestination. It doesn’t say anything like your feelings towards your opponents or enemies. In fact, it might mean just the opposite of what you want it to confirm.

It’s no wonder that, in a lifetime career of preaching, Charles Spurgeon would succumb to this temptation of taking verses out of context. It makes your arguments so much simpler when you can make the Scriptures back up any side you choose. Except they never do. They refuse. I imagine God must feel indignant when we try to make his Word our own. The real challenge is found in reading the Scriptures as he gave them to us, as a whole, and devoting yourself to discovering what God really wants you to know, not what you would rather he say.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2012 in Authors, Other thoughts

 

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