How to Grow — Seeing the God Who Pursues Us

In my previous posts on the subject of how to grow, I explained that the human predicament involves our neediness and anxiety and our wrong and sinful way of dealing with it. The Gospel tells us that the God who meets our needs pursues us and wants to have a relationship with us through Jesus Christ. This relationship meets our needs in the way we were designed to function.

So, the largest part of our growth is seeing the God who meets all our needs.

We need to remember that us having a relationship with our Creator is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. If the Creator of the universe who is all-sufficient in Himself said, “I want you to be my son or daughter,” that would be an astonishing thing. For the Creator to say to those who had sinned and rejected Him and turned away from Him to find their own way, “I want you to be my son or daughter,” is almost inexplicable.

But God has done more than that. He pursued us. He went after us. He sought us out. That’s what Christmas is all about. God pursuing man to the point of becoming a human being so that we might reconnect with Him; God bearing our sin on the cross so that all the impediments to the reconnecting might be removed; and God overcoming sin in the resurrection to heal us and make us new.

Jewish Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that this is what the Bible is all about. He writes, “Most theories of religion start out with defining the religious situation as man’s search for God . . . [but, a]ll of human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of man (emphasis his, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, p. 136).

Our central problem is thinking that our needs won’t be met or finding them met somewhere else. Our restoration is seeing that all our needs are met in the God who pursues us.

The key thing, then, is to think about what God has done. There are many ways in which you can do this. You could take a passage of Scripture such as John 3:16 and meditate on it. You could memorize a larger passage such as Ephesians 1:1–14. You may have a different way. The key thing is to remember what God has done and how it benefits us. Let me suggest a few ways we can use to think more about what God has done for us.

Categories of Needs
One of the most helpful ways that I have found, for myself and those whom I have taught, is to explain what God does for us is by considering categories of needs.

  1. Acceptance – we need love more than anything, and we are accepted in the beloved (Jesus, see Eph. 1:7). Our sin would make us unacceptable, but God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).
  2. Security – we are worried about our future, but God will turn everything to our good and take care of us. He will also keep us from falling and lead us to His eternal kingdom.
  3. Power – we have limited strength and often inability to do good. The Lord Jesus has risen from the dead and conquered sin. He empowers us by His grace to live a new life.
  4. Guidance – we often do not know what to do, but Jesus is our teacher who shows us the right way to live and think.

You can slice this up different ways, but I suspect that most people’s lists will come down to something like this.

The Trinity
One way to think of salvation is in terms of the particular blessings that are ascribed to us in the Bible as pertaining especially to one of the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

  1. The Father – The Father loved us so much that He sent His Son into the world to save us. He governs all things by His power for our sake. He cares for us so much that not a hair can fall from our Head without His permission.
  2. The Son – The Son willingly came into this world to suffer the terrible death on the cross, the just suffering for the unjust, to bring us back to God. United to Him, our sin is atoned for and our shame is covered. In Him, we have life, wisdom, strength, and communion with God.
  3. The Holy Spirit – The Holy Spirit dwells in each believer and is our companion every single day. He provides for us comfort, hope, guidance, direction, purpose, and love, applying to us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms in Christ (Eph. 1:3).

We are baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and have all these benefits. We live out our baptism by appropriating and meditating on the love the Triune God has for us.

The Work of Christ
One of the most ancient statements of faith of the Christian church is the Apostle’s Creed. It describes Jesus who became a human being, suffered, died, rose again, and is ascended into heaven. The Heidelberg Catechism (see Q/A 29–52) and Westminster Larger Catechism (see Q/A 46–56) describe in detail what each aspect of Jesus’ life means for us. Here is a brief summary:

  1. Incarnation – God identifies with us, wants to connect with us, and covers our imperfection with His perfection.
  2. Death – He suffers the penalty of sin in our place so all that separates us from God can be eliminated.
  3. Resurrection – He rises to a new life that becomes ours in connection with Him, a life that recreates us in the way we were intended to be.
  4. Ascension – Christ intercedes for us with the Father and continually secures our access to and connection with the Father.
  5. Return – Christ brings the hope that all things will be restored. What He begins in this life will come to full fruition in the new heavens and new earth.

The whole life of Christ is for our benefit and contains the sum of the blessings of God for us. Meditating on this helps us see that in Christ we have all we need.

The Order of Salvation
The Holy Spirit applies to us the benefits of salvation in our lives that Christ has won for us when He came to earth. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (see Q/A 29 38) gives a succinct discussion of this. Here is another summary:

  1. Calling – the Lord comes to us and call us back to Himself. By His Spirit He enables us to respond to that call and be restored to relationship with Him.
  2. Justification – God declares us righteous and acquitted of our sins because of what Jesus has done for us.
  3. Adoption – we are not only forgiven but given the status of sons and daughters of God, heirs of all things with Christ.
  4. Sanctification – God not only forgives and adopts us but changes us and restores us to what He originally intended us to be.
  5. Perseverance – God keeps us in faith by His grace so that we can continue to grow and remain secure in the blessings He won for us.
  6. Glorification – At our death, our souls are made perfectly cleansed of all sin and brought into His presence. At the resurrection, our bodies are restored to live in perfect harmony with Him, one another, and with creation for all eternity.

This is the way that the Holy Spirit enables us to experience the blessings of a relationship with God.

Biblical Theology
Systematic theology looks at what Scriptures says about particular topics such as forgiveness, the Trinity, Christ, etc. Biblical theology consider God’s revelation as a story. One way to think of what God has done for us is to think in terms of the history of revelation in the Old Testament and to think of how it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. There are many different ways to do this, but let me suggest one way here.

  1. Abraham – God calls us to be sons and daughters of Abraham through faith and to experience blessing instead of curse in the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ.
  2. Exodus – God frees us from the dominion and tyranny of sin and the devil and leads us out of the darkness into a glorious inheritance of life and hope.
  3. Moses – God sends Jesus to be a prophet like Moses and to teach us the way of salvation and guide us into a life that is pleasing to Him.
  4. David – God sends a King to rule us and deliver us from all His enemies and ours and to establish a reign of blessing in our lives.
  5. Exile – God calls us out of our exile and slavery to experience a restored life, forgiveness, and blessing with His people.

You could flesh these things out further in order to think more on the details of what God has done. Here you can definitely use your imagination to see what God is doing in the Old Testament and how it is fulfilled in the New.

These are just a few ways for thinking about how God pursues us. The key thing is that we have some ways to think about what God is doing and to see it in our mind’s eye more constantly and more clearly. We will talk about how to do that in the next installment.

Discussion Questions
1. Do you think more of you pursuing God or God pursuing you?
2. What way of describing God’s pursuit of us resonated with you the most and why?
3. What ways have you found helpful in the past for thinking about God’s love and pursuit of you?
4. What specific benefits of fellowship with God do you think would answer your current challenges, neediness, and sin?

________

This is part of a 7 part series on how to grow. Read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.

Jesus Pursuing Zacchaeus

When I was young, I read and heard C.S. Lewis’ wonderful classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (hereafter LW&W). As a young boy, I was moved by the story of Peter.

Peter’s story is the classic story of a young and inexperienced on a quest. This person has to grow up in order to take leadership in meeting a great challenge. It’s a story of growth, and it’s a story that we all love, whether its form is Annie, Star Wars, or James and the Giant Peach.

A few years ago, I read LW&W out loud to my children, and I made an astonishing discovery. This book is not really about Peter at all. It’s all about Aslan. The title is not Peter, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.. It is The Lion, W&W.

Throughout LW&W, the focus is on what Aslan is going to do or is doing. Aslan wins the victory. Yes, some of the Narnians and Peter fight, but their role is relatively minor. It’s Aslan who defeats the witch and wins the fight.

I think that some of the Bible stories are like that. In the case of Zachaeus, we, as wee little children, were fascinated by the wee little man Zacchaeus who climbed a tree, which was something we also loved to do.

However, the “Zacchaeus” story is not really about Zacchaeus. It is about Jesus. Zacchaeus is there, but it is Jesus who is pursuing Zacchaeus and making things happen.

Zacchaeus was a tax collector for the Roman Empire, and he was no doubt a hated man. Sometimes we try to think about who Zacchaeus represents in our modern world. I think he represents me . . . and you . . . and every other human being on earth.

The God who created the universe comes down in human form to connect with us. He goes right up to us in the midst of a crowd and says, “Wes” or “David” or “Zacchaeus, I’m coming to your house today. I want to have a relationship with you.”

The conclusion of the story tells us this: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

It is God pursuing man.

Jewish Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that this is what the Bible is all about. He writes, “Most theories of religion start out with defining the religious situation as man’s search for God . . . [but, a]ll of human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of man (emphasis his, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, p. 136).

The Christian faith concurs with this perspective and adds that God’s search is so intense that He became a human being. In Jesus, as the Zacchaeus story reveals, God is pursuing man. The God who made heaven and earth and governs it all in perfect wisdom is pursuing you.

How to Grow — Recognizing Our Sin

The anxiety in sin calls for compassion. The pride in sin calls for condemnation.

Sin is not a simple phenomenon. It is complex. In my last post on growth, I talked about the challenge of the human situation. We can see big, but we are small. This creates a gap between the problems we see and what we can do about it. Therein lies our anxiety.

In the face of these problems, we have two options. We can trust the Lord, or we can seek our own solution. When we seek our own solution, we not only turn from the Lord, we seek a solution at the expense of others. From seeking our own solution arises all the injustices we commit against other people: seeking our own welfare at their expense and attacking them when they don’t cooperate with our project.

When the Apostle Paul spoke about sin, he said that it began with knowing God but suppressing that knowledge (Rom. 1:18–20). He explained that people don’t stop seeking an ultimate hope. They just create a new god in their own image, an idol (Rom. 1:25). This leads them to seek their happiness and satisfaction in created things, even in a debasing way (1:28–29). This in turn leads to all the injustices people commit against one another (1:29–31).

Sin is complex not simple. Sin leads to sin. It creates a way of looking at the world that has consequences that involve more sin.

Richard Lovelace in his book Dynamics of Spiritual Life notes that this way of looking at sin was common in Christian history. When the Enlightenment came, Christians tended to downplay the depth and complexity of sin and to view it primarily as “conscious, voluntary acts of transgression against known laws” (88).

However, the idea of an unconscious motivation for sin did not disappear entirely. “Sigmund Freud rediscovered this factor and recast it in an elaborate and profound secular mythology” (88). We could also add to this Karl Marx’s communist mythology that did point out the way sin gets systematically entrenched in society.

Ironically, the secular world became more aware of the depths of sin than the church. The sad result: “in the twentieth century pastors have often been reduced to the status of legalistic moralists, while the deeper aspects of the cure of souls are generally relegated to psychotherapy, even among Evangelical Christians” (88).

In recent years, there has been a recovery of the complex nature of sin. Books like Lovelace’s and like Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods explain sin in this more complex way.

One way I have taught about the complexity of sin is through the concept of idolatry. We begin with the idea that God is our highest good and the One in whom we are to find ultimate satisfaction. Then, we ask, where are we looking for that ultimate satisfaction in things and people rather than God?

How can we answer that question. I suggest five steps.

First, identify a problem behavior. Things in our life that we find problematic such as destructive emotions, habits, or relationships are not themselves the root problem, but they can point us to the problem.

Second, ask why to discern the idol. Our first answer to the why question is usually superficial or based on obligating others. Keep pushing. Don’t rest with a superficial answer. For example, why does it bother you so much that this specific person treats you this way? You may say, “people shouldn’t do that,” but it doesn’t burn you up when other people are treated this way. Why this person and the way they treat you?

Third, identify the idol. We can think of idols from three perspectives: gods of self such as “your god is your belly”; gods of objects such as food, money, or sex; or gods of needs or wants such as desire for security, acceptance, or comfort.

Fourth, repent of your idol. Acknowledge that seeking your ultimate acceptance in a person rather than God, for example, is idolatrous.

Fifth, replace the promise of the idol with the promise of the Gospel. For example, recognize that the acceptance you are looking for in a child, friend, or husband can only be found ultimately in God.

This is just one way of looking at the complexity of sin. The major payoff for our growth is that we not only need to address our will but the way we think about life in order to be transformed. If sin is a complex problem, it requires a complex solution. God’s grace is needed to renew our will and our thinking and our emotions.

Diagnostic Questions
1. What are some problem areas that you continually struggle with? Have you ever seriously probed your thinking behind these issues?
2. What idols do you struggle with most?
3. What do you tend to look for most in circumstances, things, and people: comfort, security, acceptance, or control?
4. What is a time you get the most upset when things don’t go your way or when you don’t get what you want?
5. What promise of the Gospel do you think you need to apply most readily?
6. When you don’t get what you want, what is your pattern in dealing with other people?
7. How do you tend to skew things your own way in your own life?
8. Who are the people you struggle with the most in your life? What do you think you do that contributes to that struggle?
9. Do you make confession of sin to God and to others a regular practice in your life?

________

This is part of a 7 part series on how to grow. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Do You Let Jesus Challenge You?

“Do you hate your father and mother?” I asked one woman in our church.

“No.” She replied.

“Then, you cannot be Jesus’ disciple.” I answered.

She looked at me like I was crazy, but my question was based on Jesus’ statement to a large crowd, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

Of course, I don’t think Jesus literally wanted us to hate our parents, our siblings, or ourselves. So, why did Jesus say something so crazy?

I wonder if Jesus saw all these crowds and thought, “How can I get them to think about what I’m really asking them to do? How can I get them to see that I am the only one that can give them hope?” So, Jesus said something that would arrest them and make them think. It wouldn’t be the first time that Jesus had said something like that.

So, what was Jesus after?

Here’s my thought. Human beings were made to find their hope, security, blessedness, happiness, direction, purpose, and acceptance in God. He is the ultimate source of these things. All other things, even the best things like parent-child and husband-wife relationships are secondary and impossible substitutes for this divine relationship. This relationship must come first and have no peer.

Our problem is that we get it backwards. Where do we go for our comfort, security, and acceptance? Those closest to us. This is actually what creates most relationship problems. We look for a spouse, a child, or a parent to give us the affirmation and acceptance that only God can give.

So, Jesus is telling us that we have to turn that around. Our relationship with God comes first. Everything else must be relativized in comparison with Him.

It is also important to recognize that our relationship with Jesus is not a relationship of equals. Jesus defines the terms and sets the agenda. He does not enter into our life and just add something to it. He asks us to do things that conflict with our own desires. This is what he means when He says that anyone who follows after Him must “hate their own lives.”

If we are to follow Jesus, our relationships and agenda may have to give way to Jesus’ agenda and the relationship He wants to have with us.

This week I had lunch with a friend and fellow Jesus follower. He gave me an interesting example of how this works out. He loves to run, and he told me that he had given up running because He felt that He needed to spend more time in communion with Jesus. Giving up his running time was the best way to do it. It was hard, but it was worth it.

I, on the other hand, have recently started running. I have done it because of Jesus. I have realized that I want to increase my own strength, energy, and capacity for endurance so I can serve the Lord better. Running once a week is one way that I am trying to do this.

It’s the same Jesus who is calling us in different ways to give up our own lives in following Him.

It begins with letting Jesus challenge you. It begins with saying to Jesus, “I have my agenda, but what is yours, Jesus?” Have you ever said that to Him?

And why would we do this? Because Jesus’ agenda is better than our own.

Man Between God and the Devil

“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the work of the devil.” So wrote the Apostle John.

The drama of the Christian faith takes place on the backdrop of the opposition of the devil.

The modern secularized, corporate world rejects the supernatural. So, in Western society, spiritual warfare often embarrasses Christians. Even those who believe the devil is real have trouble integrating that truth into their lives.

Theologian Richard Lovelace argued that this is problematic. It does not do justice to the content of biblical revelation or to the actual experience of Christians. It seems easier in the short term to ignore the Bible’s mention of the devil, but in the long run it won’t work. He writes:

Such a domesticated view of spiritual reality may be superficially comfortable for a while, but eventually it is simply not credible. We will have less anxiety ourselves and more of a hearing from the world if we will believe in and preach the awesome, dangerous, but solid realities taught in Scripture. (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 144)

You just cannot get around the fact that the Bible is unapologetically supernatural in its approach.

Lovelace’s focus was not merely on defending the truth. His main interest was practical: how can individuals and churches be renewed and revived? One important aspect of renewal is recognizing the reality of spiritual warfare and the good news of the Christian’s spiritual authority in that warfare, he argued.

Lovelace illustrated this by recounting the history of the church’s teaching on Satan. He said that there was certainly superstitious approaches in the history of the church, but there has always been a bedrock of careful biblical teaching on this subject that can be found in the writings of the great teachers of the church. Martin Luther appropriated this teaching because it was biblical, and it is a significant part of the story of the Reformation.

During the Enlightenment, the church retreated from its emphasis on the supernatural in general idea of Satan and demons specifically. The focus was on the Bible as containing merely rules for a good life.

What Lovelace noticed in his studies of revival is that in times of revival such as the Welsh Revival of 1904 to 1905 and in missionary endeavors, an emphasis on spiritual warfare regularly developed. As the kingdom of God expanded into new areas, the conflict became clearer and much greater.

So, Lovelace concluded from Scripture and history that a necessary element of spiritual renewal is an awareness of spiritual warfare and of the authority that Christians have in it through Christ.

Lovelace went on his book to explain the strategies of Satan. These five strategies help flesh out how the devil attacks Christians.

1. Temptation: he seeks to get us to give in to things we shouldn’t do or distract us from what we should do.

2. Deception: he seeks to get us to believe wrong things about ourselves, others, God, and the world.

3. Accusation: he seeks to show us the faults of others and hide their good characteristics in order to increase division among Christians. He tries to show us our own real faults to make us believe God will have nothing to do with us. Note that the name “Satan” means “accuser.”

4. Possession: when a demon takes over the personality of an individual.

5. Physical attack: when he seeks to use physical force to keep Christians from following Christ, as he does with 300 million Christians around the world today.

So, how do we oppose the attacks of Satan?

1. Be aware that these things are attacks of Satan. There is more going on in the opposition to the Christian faith than what meets the eye.

2. Read Scripture. I have experienced times of intense temptation, and I have experienced it go away immediately as I read the Word of God out loud.

3. Pray. Be strong in the Lord’s power. We engage in faith by praying to the Lord and seeking His power and authority in this matter.

4. Call a Christian friend. The Apostle Paul used the metaphor of armor to explain how we fight against the devil. However, the Roman army was an army not just a group of individuals. They would use formations that made them much stronger as a collective than they would be individually. Often our first step when we sense spiritual warfare should be to put our shields together, that is, to get other Christians involved.

It is hard to maintain these truths in our society, which is perhaps itself an evidence of spiritual warfare. However, more awareness and emphasis on this conflict can bring renewal to our lives and churches. It can make us more aware of what is really going on and more appreciative of the power and triumph we have in Christ, who appeared to destroy the works of the devil.