There are a couple sure-fire ways to get almost any Christian to feel guilty. One way is to ask a believer about his prayer life. A recurring response is that, “It could be better.” Well of course it could. You don’t really need to sleep, right? Jesus spent whole nights in prayer…what is your excuse?
That’s an easy one, but the one exhortation to rule them all is not about Bible reading or prayer, it’s not about church attendance, it’s not about how many dates you’ve taken your wife on in the last year, it’s not if you’ve ever spoken to your kids in impatience or anger.
There is one law that none of us obey, not even one. If we had a week of only telling the truth, of only sacrificing for the good of others, of only faithful working and stewarding as image-bearers, of only being in a good mood and always giving thanks in every circumstance, we still can be tagged with not loving God with all our hearts.
It’s good to have goals that are measurable. The Great Commandment is absolutely measurable, and the measurement is repeated three times by Moses (Deuteronomy 6:5) and all three times when Jesus quoted Moses. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
What should we do about our perpetual shortfall to this command? How can we accept it without being buried in paralyzing shame? What we most certainly cannot do is ignore or even lower the law. What we can and most certainly must do is come to the Father who commands us to love, not because He needs it, but because He knows that we need it. Love Him, and love that He faithfully loves us in Christ even when our love is halfhearted.
God frequently reveals the priorities He has for us, and it is very common for us to make alterations. He says what He wants, we give Him something else that we think He might be happy with instead.
The Lord regularly told the Israelites that He desired their obedience rather than their offerings (Hosea 6:6); Psalm 50:8, 14-15, 23; Proverbs 21:3). Those sacrifices were, of course, sacrifices that He Himself had commanded them to make. But the sacrifices were to be an act of obedience, not a substitute for obedience.
It is just as likely for us to offer up something to the Lord that appears to meet the specs. It is not just possible, it is likely that Christians often consider their attendance and participation in corporate worship as something that pleases God, which it is, but only as we are worshipping Him in all the ways He wants.
Jeremiah Burroughs wrote,
You worship God more by [contentment] than when you come to hear a sermon, or spend half an hour, or an hour, in prayer, or when you come to receive a sacrament. These are the acts of God’s worship, but they are only external acts of worship, to hear and pray and receive sacraments. But this is the soul’s worship, to subject itself thus to God. (The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 120)
He continued by pointing out the power of our being pleased with what God does.
in active obedience we worship God by doing what pleases God, but by passive obedience we do as well worship God by being pleased with what God does. (.ibid)
Maybe you have done all the things you think you needed to do this week. But have you been pleased with all the things that God has done in your week? Pleasure in His work is worship.
The fruit of the Spirit are one. That is, Galatians 5:22 says “fruit” (singular) while seven pieces are listed. The first few are more often remembered because we say them more often (love, joy, peace); we trail off halfway through figuring that our friend knows that we know the rest.
It is the last piece that I want to call our attention to for now: self-control.
In the world we live in, there will be control. And as it has been observed, either we will control ourselves or others will control us. Wisdom knows that “the hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor” (Proverbs 12:24). Be diligent on your own, or have a manager always watching over your shoulder while you flip burgers.
This isn’t only an employment issue, or even a political one, but includes our entertainment and our relationships.
If we cannot control our tastes we will eat junk. Eating junk too much junk for too long and we will become what we eat. If your favorite music is vapid, if you can’t wait for the weekend to binge watch movies, your soul will become as thin as the wifi signal that feeds your distractions.
In our relationships, if we cannot control emotions, we will be enslaved to bitterness, or to lust, or eventually to alimony payments. It is the Gentiles who live in the passion of lust (1 Thessalonians 4:5), they are enslaved to their passions. They are not free.
Spirit-filled self-control is not a law, but there is no law against it. In Christ our fleshly desires have died, and “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24).
When Jesus talks about those who are blessed He really messes up our categories. His sermon starts out that way, with the poor in spirit as heirs of the kingdom of heaven.
Inheriting the kingdom of heaven is the only promise mentioned twice, and the second time it belongs with the only characteristic that is mentioned as doubly-blessed.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-11)
Not the peacemakers or the pure in heart or the poor in spirit are given two blesseds, but the persecuted. And note that persecuted isn’t narrowly defined as being beaten or killed, though it certainly includes that. This persecution includes being talked bad about, being talked to about your insensitivity, or your bigotry, or your arrogance, or just that you’re so dumb for believing in Jesus.
I have been thinking about this “blessing” more and more recently, and how we want to be a people who are not only able to absorb the criticism, but who really are able to “rejoice and be glad” when it comes. Such treatment puts us in a long line of godly men and women, and it means our reward is great in heaven, for which we really ought to be investing.
Are we living in such a way as to provoke the right kind of persecution, and then are we ready to receive persecution in such a cheerful way as to make others wish they could have that blessing?
For the past three weeks I’ve been reminding us that God came in the flesh. We need reminding about certain things, and the Christmas season is a strategic time to keep the incarnation warming on the mental front burner. The apostle John stated that to deny Christ came in the flesh is the spirit of the antichrist (1 John 4:2-3). The apostle Peter referred to Christ’s suffering in the flesh as key to our thinking (1 Peter 4:1-2). And the apostle Paul considered the truth of Christ’s incarnation to be the church’s responsibility to protect.
He wrote to Timothy about “the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The church supports and defends the truth. Then he continued with an amazing hymn of truth.
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16)
Most of these belong with godliness. It suits God to be vindicated and appreciated and believed then received into heaven’s glory. All of those fit. It does not fit, not naturally, that godliness would first be “manifested in the flesh.”
The Old Testament prophesied it. The virgin would bear a son and his name would be called Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14). God would be with us (Matthew 1:23). But it was still a mystery. It still didn’t all make sense. Yet now we know. God, and true godlinesses, was revealed in Jesus.
We are to love and proclaim and believe and support that truth. It is not secondary or optional. Our salvation depends on it. And we also should desire that godliness be manifest—made known, gone public—in our own flesh. The work of the Spirit is a sanctifying work until we are taken up into glory with Jesus.
Most people agree that being thankful is good. Most people also agree that cardiovascular exercise for twenty or more minutes, three to five times each week is good, but that doesn’t mean they do it. For Christians who want to make progress in their thankful-fitness, I want to offer a couple cautions at the beginning of the program.
Caution #1: An increase in thankfulness routinely correlates with a decrease in pride, especially pride as seen in personal independence or, in extreme cases, even isolation.
Caution #2: An increase in thankfulness routinely correlates with a decrease in pride, especially pride as seen in laziness or, in extreme cases, pretentiousness.
Here’s one example. Let’s say that you want to give thanks for (or to) your spouse, a husband for his wife, though it could easily work the other way. A husband who earnestly takes the time to consider all that his wife does will realize that he could not do all of the things that she does on his own. He doesn’t have the interest, the intellect, the skills, or the time. If he actually calculates her value to him for sake of giving thanks, then he cannot continue to hold onto his delusion about being a solo-hero.
Such an exercise of thankfulness for his wife may cause him to realize not only how much he depends on her, but also how much she is outworking him. A thinking man won’t make too much of all her work for the Thanksgiving feast on Thursday, let alone all the previous days of preparation, because that attention will throw too much contrast on his own afternoon full of watching sports. It’s not just on special occasions either. If he looks too closely he might see that she lapped the pace-car a long time ago.
We could just avoid these attacks on our pride by being unthankful, by working to distract ourselves with food and games and Thomas Kinkade pictures of family where we rarely have to see persons. But God commands us to give thanks, so holding onto our pride is going to have to go anyway.