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One Pursuit

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” — Maya Angelou

Our Response to the Covenant Love of God (Part 5 in a series)

A Climb Free post – a deeper look at truths that can change our view of our God, ourselves, and the way in which we can live effectively in this world. (This is a continuation of the exploration of our God’s “hesed” love, His covenant love for us.)

What is to be our response to this “hesed” love of our God, this covenant love He lavishes upon us? It is only right that we respond to Him with a reciprocal love.  Our God speaks to this through the prophet in Hosea 6:1-6Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.  “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him.  “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn; and He will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth.  What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? For your loyalty is like a morning cloud and like the dew which goes away early.  Therefore, I have hewn them in pieces by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of My mouth; and the judgments on you are like the light that goes forth.  For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Israel had wandered far from their God.  Time and again they would begin to worship the false gods of the people they failed to displace when they took over the land.  The trouble started with choosing to make their enemies their servants instead of kicking them out completely.  They then began to intermingle with them, pursuing their own self-interests and ignoring their God. This selfish disobedience would repeat many times. The Israelites tried to live a religious life that served their own self-interests. They failed to realize that whatever is selfish cannot lead to love, and selfish people cannot comprehend true love.

And so this word from God through Hosea.  “Come let us return to the Lord, for He will heal us.”  Here the prophet is relying on the covenant love of God to still be pursuing them, and he is confident that if they will return to their God, His love for them will lead to healing.

He continues: “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.”  The prophet is pleading not simply for a behavior change, but for a change in the relationship they have with their God.  The Hebrew term here, “to know,” is a term of intimacy, not factual knowledge. The plea is for a deep, intimate relationship with Him which would prevent them from returning to their folly.   We cannot love deeply one whom we do not know deeply.  We must pursue our God earnestly if we are to love Him. This idea of knowing our God intimately has been the topic in recent posts on the Adventure Blog.

Then the Lord speaks about them: “…your loyalty is like a morning cloud and like the dew which goes away early.”  “Loyalty” here, from the Hebrew word transliterated “hesed,” is the word we have been studying in the last few “Climb Free” posts.  The Lord is laying down the expectation that His children will love Him as He loves them, with a loyal, covenant love that is steadfast and pursuing. He contrasts that covenant love with the commitment they displayed toward Him, which was shallow, selfish, fleeting, and opportunistic.

The message from God is clear. “For I delight in loyalty,” a covenant love in return for His covenant love for us, “rather than sacrifice,” meaning loveless, perfunctory religious observance.  Apparently, the Israelites believed that if they offered the sacrifices and religious observances, they were “in” with their God.  “If we just give to God the rituals He laid out in the law, we can then go along with the locals and keep God happy.”  They were totally ignoring the First (and greatest) Commandment from Deuteronomy 6, to love their God with all of their heart, soul, and strength. There is no love in the kind of selfishness and false religiosity they exhibited toward their God. Their actions clearly pointed out the vital truth that whoever is selfish cannot love, and cannot really comprehend true love.

This kind of thinking still shows up to promote whatever is the religiosity of the day instead of true love for our God.  How easily we think that if we just give our God enough of the religious stuff He wants, He will be okay with that.  We can then get on with living our own lives the way we want. We forget that the reason for which we were created was to live out of a self-sacrificing, all-consuming covenant love for our God.  Our God is saying to us what He said to Israel: “For I delight in loyalty,” covenant love in return for His covenant love for us, “rather than sacrifice,” religious observances and rote ritualism.   Our God desires from each of us a covenant love toward Himself that is relentless in the pursuit of intimacy and communion, unfailing in its focus upon Him daily.  He desires from us a steadfast love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. A love that never fails.

Here is important news for us: we are not capable of this love for our God on our own.  You cannot love your God or anyone else with this covenant love, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in you.  Listen to how Paul talks about this in Romans 5:3-5 “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

Our ability to love our God with this great covenant love is completely dependent upon the work of God the Holy Spirit in us.  We simply cannot, with our own ability to love, begin to love our God with this great, steadfast, relentless love.  We in our humanness do not have that capacity.  It is a work of our God, by His grace and His love for us, that He puts this love for Himself within us.  Only by this work of His Holy Spirit can we begin to realize the fullness of our calling in Him.

The next “Climb Free” post will explore this Great Commandment, and the love we are to have for our God

Climb Free: The Covenant Love of God in the New Testament

Climb Free post – a deeper look at truths that can change our view of our God, ourselves, and the way in which we can live effectively in this world. (This is part 4 in a series, a continuation of the exploration of our God’s “hesed” love, His covenant love for us.)

Just what is the definitive icon or symbol that is distinctly and unmistakably Christian?  Is it the cross?  The crucifix? In 1970, Francis Schaeffer an essay that he intended to be part of a larger project, yet it was published on its own.  “The Mark of a Christian” turned out to be a classic book (booklet, actually) that is still in print nearly 50 years later.  In it, Schaeffer stated the following.  “Through the centuries men have displayed many different symbols to show that they are Christians. They have worn marks on the lapels of their coats, hung chains about their necks, even had special haircuts. Of course, there is nothing wrong with any of this, if one feels it is his calling. But there is a much better sign — a mark that has not been thought up just as a matter of expediency for use on some special occasion or in some specific era. It is a universal mark that is to last through all the ages of the church till Jesus comes back. What is this mark?”

“At the close of his ministry, Jesus looks forward to his death on the cross, the open tomb and the ascension. Knowing that he is about to leave, Jesus prepares his disciples for what is to come. It is here that he makes clear what will be the distinguishing mark of the Christian: “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:33-35)

Schaeffer makes a point too important for us to ignore.  The first and best identifier of Christianity, the mark of a Christian, is love. For far too long, far too many Christians have thought that if we display a cross or build a nice building, or perhaps have catchy songs or a great preacher, the world will notice us and be interested.  That has never worked well, nor will it ever.  We who follow the living God are the only living representations of His working in the world.  If we do not bear the mark as Jesus directed, what hope is there that the world will ever know Him?

The reason we exist is that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest.  As we have been relating in previous “Climb Free” posts, the root term used for the love of our God more than any other in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word, “hesed.”  In many English translations, the term is rendered steadfast love, lovingkindness, or love and mercy. This term requires a sentence to adequately translate it for us. This “hesed” love is the always gracious, always kind, always merciful, always pursuing, unfailing and relentless love of our God.  This is our God’s covenant love, not based upon anything we have done or can do to earn it or qualify for it.  It flows from our God to us out of His commitment with Himself to love us in this way.  Brennen Manning: “If you took the love of all the best mothers and fathers who ever lived (think about that for a moment) — all the goodness, kindness, patience, fidelity, wisdom, tenderness, strength and love — and united all those virtues in one person, that person would only be a faint shadow of the love and mercy in the heart of God for you and me.”

This “hesed” love is the clearest understanding love of our God for us, and it is the basis of His work in and among us.  This understanding of His love for us carries over into the New Testament as well.  1 Corinthians 13 is for many a go-to passage for a description of divine love. The apostle Paul, a Hebrew scholar, draws on this idea of “hesed” love as his model in this famous chapter.  Look at the common themes between what we know of the “hesed” love and the description in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails….”

  • God’s covenant love is always kind – love is kind
  • God’s covenant love is always merciful – is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered,
  • God’s covenant love is always gracious – love is patient, and is not jealous, does not boast or act unbecomingly, does not seek its own
  • God’s covenant love is relentless, unfailing, steadfast – love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; love never fails.

This great love of our God for us, the “template” for the love described in 1 Corinthians 13, is the love to which Paul refers in Ephesians 2:1-7. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.  Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.  But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”  The great covenant love of our God not only overcomes our stubbornness, our rebellion, trespasses and sins; it overwhelms them with mercy, grace, kindness and relentless pursuit.   He lavishes this steadfast love even on His enemies, on those who reject Him, on those dead in their transgressions.

In the next “Climb Free” post, we will explore our response to this great, steadfast lovingkindness of our God for us.

The Love of God – His Steadfast Love (Part 3 in a series)

A Climb Free post – a deeper look at truths that can change our view of our God, ourselves, and the way in which we can live effectively in this world. (This is a continuation of the exploration of our God’s “hesed” love, His covenant love for us.)

The covenant love our God is always full of kindness.  How sad it is that so many people seem to think of our God in terms of strict discipline, judgment, wrath, and punishment.  The scriptures are clear, and the history of our God’s dealings with us bears it out, that he always leads with kindness, including to those who are acting as His enemies.  The kindness of our God is the character quality with which He leads in His dealings with his friends as well as those who think themselves His enemies.

As our God states in Romans 2:4, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”  And in Titus 3:4 it reads, “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy….”

The covenant love our God is relentless and never-failing.  It is His steadfast love.  Even in the most demanding circumstances and most difficult passages, we are assured that the love of our God is steadfast and never-failing.  He is relentless in pursuing us with His love.  Jeremiah knew of this unfailing and relentless love, even in the midst of incredibly trying times as the prophet of the conquest and captivity. Hear his words in Lamentations 3:22-23: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

Psalm 42, also speaks of the steadfast and relentless love of our God, even in difficult circumstances: “Yet I am standing here depressed and gloomy, but I will meditate upon your kindness to this lovely land where the Jordan River flows and where Mount Hermon and Mount Mizar stand.  All your waves and billows have gone over me, and floods of sorrow pour upon me like a thundering cataract.  Yet day by day the Lord also pours out his steadfast love upon me, and through the night I sing his songs and pray to God who gives me life.”

The covenant love of our God is always pursuing us. He is never-ceasing in His seeking to woo us and capture our hearts.  Tim Keller observes “… Christianity is unique among all religions for it is about God’s pursuit of us to draw us to Himself. In every other religious system, people pursue their god, hoping that through good behavior, keeping of rituals, good works, or other efforts they will be accepted by the god they pursue.”

Indeed, look at the imagery of our God in the Bible.  Even after the fall of the race, our God is walking in the Garden, seeking Adam and Eve, asking “Where are you?”  Through the judges and the prophets, He is continually reaching out to His wayward people.  He is seeking them and pursuing them out of love, as we saw in the previous example of Hosea 11:1-4. In Jesus’ parables, He is diligently searching for us, the “lost coins,” and He is out at night searching for us, the “lost sheep.”  He is the father filled with a prodigal love, standing alert as he searches for his prodigal son to return, spotting him while is still a long way off.  The entire incarnation event is a giant example of a God who will stop at nothing to pursue and recapture His lost people.  And at the conclusion of the Jesus “in-person” phase of this incarnation event, Jesus initiates the Jesus “in us” phase, characterized by the Great Commission of Matthew 28.  Jesus invites us to personally and corporately join Him in the pursuit of humans in every corner of the earth.

This pursuing quality defines the love of our God, and is implied in the Hebrew idea of “hesed.”  Francis Thompson wrote of this pursuing love in his famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” Here is a paraphrase of one portion of that poem, “God says, “You keep running from Me. This is strange. Why do you run from Me? I love you. You didn’t do anything to merit My love. Human love is different from My love, for human love you need merit. I love you no matter what you do because I Am Love.””

This “hesed” love, this covenant love of our God for us is the always gracious, always kind, always merciful, always pursuing, unfailing or relentless love of our God.  It is the foundation for the forgiveness of our God, even for the most recalcitrant of sinners. Nehemiah 9:17 describes this forgiveness perfectly, and attributes it to the “hesed” love (“lovingkindness”) of our God; “They refused to listen, and did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them; so they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; and You did not forsake them.”  The truth stated earlier, that it is the kindness of our God that leads us to repentance, is also found in Psalm 130:4; “But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared.”

This covenant love of our God for us is why, rather than dealing with us out of anger and judgment as He is thought to do by so many, our God chooses to deal with us in forgiveness.  He deals with us, even the worst of us, in an attitude of forbearance.  Those who would portray our God as quick to judge and damn people for specific sins forget the forbearing character of our God as described in Romans 3:25. Here it speaks of Jesus “…whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed….”

The next “Climb Free” post will continue to explore this divine, covenant love and its implications for us, focusing on how this understanding of our God’s covenant love made its way into the New Covenant thinking in the New Testament.

How Shall We Press On to Know Our God?

Some people, when the conversation turns to intimacy and communion with their God, light up and become energized.  It is clear they enjoy their God, and long for the consciousness of His presence.  John Piper said this; “But to enjoy him we must know him. Seeing is savoring. If he remains a blurry, vague fog, we may be intrigued for a season. But we will not be stunned with joy, as when the fog clears and you find yourself on the brink of some vast precipice.”

Other people – many others, really – are not energized by this most important of topics.  They are hardly intrigued by it.  In fact, a good number are not even comfortable with it.  The depth of the topic is too much for the shallowness of what has come to pass as the “normal Christian life” (apologies to Watchman Nee). Hear what CS Lewis had to say on this. “When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side. If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him. And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others…not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition. Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.”

It is up to our God to reveal Himself to each of us and to all of us.  This He does for every person, in both general and specific personal revelation. It is up to each of us and all of us to pursue that revelation with as much of an uncluttered and single-focused heart as possible.  It is up to us to wipe the dust off the mirror, to use Lewis’ analogy.  Our God is daily speaking to us, constantly wooing us to come closer, continually revealing Himself in a hundred different ways.  We turn up our radios, put in the ear buds, leave the TV on the entire time we are awake at home, and read and explore information that does not matter at all.  We fill our days with hurry, noise, and crowds, and spend our energy and time on excessive busyness, all the while thinking we are accomplishing important things.  We do all of this as the Holy Spirit is whispering in our hearts, quietly and usually below the noise level of our living, “Few things are important, really only one.”

We have come to look for our God in the big things, the noisy things, the busy things of our lives.  We do not find Him there.  We turn to our church experiences, which we have made into big things, noisy things, busy things.  We have set up programs which are, in reality, viewing hours for God. We tell ourselves, each other, and the world that if one shows up at a certain time, God will show up, too.  We have created an alternate form of Christian experience, a kind of “churchianity.”  We do all of this as the Holy Spirit is whispering in our hearts, quietly and usually below the noise level of our churchianity, “Few things are important, really only one.”

Our God is speaking quietly but incessantly to us.  Daily He is revealing Himself to us in words softly spoken, often in the silence we avoid. He speaks in kind deeds done in mercy, in events orchestrated to draw us near, interactions intended to speak of His love.  We miss these for the most part, and will continue to miss them until we clear our living of the habits of mind and action that clutter and confuse our spiritual living.  Until we “dust off the mirror,” so to speak.  “Communication through revelation is part of what makes Christianity unique. It takes you from a vague idea of “there is some kind of something up there,” to a personal God who communicates with us, revealing what he is like and how to have a relationship with him. Anything that could get in the way of that revelation would be disastrous to us either knowing about God or knowing him personally.”  Jon Morrison was right in saying this, and we would be right in heeding his words.

“Take time for the quiet moments, as God whispers and the world is loud,” is indeed a worthy ancient Irish saying.

More on pressing on to know our God in the next Adventure Blog post.

The Quest to Know God

“Knowing the Bible is one thing.  Knowing the author is another.”  This simple statement is rich with profound truth.  How many people come to learn many truths about the Bible, and never become intimate with its author?  Far too many, I fear.

We have built an entire “Christian education” system around learning facts and principles about our God.  We have publishing houses churning out video series, study guides, curricula, books and booklets, podcasts, and more (all at a nice profit).  These all rely on learning the facts and principles regarding our God, with the implied or stated promise that his product or experience will in some way bring you closer to your God. Yet for all this learning, we are no closer, no more intimate in our relationship with our God.  We know about Him, but few really know Him.

In the late 1970’s while in a theology class at Biola University, the professor challenged the class to pursue knowing our God intimately, to pursue intimacy ahead of knowledge.  That was a challenge that stood out starkly in a university academic environment.  We read JI Packer’s “Knowing God,” and AW Tozer’s “The Knowledge of the Holy.” The professor would often stop in the lecture and wax pastoral in his efforts to help us apply what we were learning to our growing intimacy with our God. Yes, I left that class having taken tests and written papers on theological facts. More importantly, I left that class with a hunger for more of my God on a personal and intimate level.  I also left that class dismayed at how I could grow up in an evangelical church culture, yet it was not until I was 21 years old that I was finally challenged to pursue intimacy and communion with my God.

The prophet Hosea said this: “Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us.  He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him.  So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. His going forth is as certain as the dawn; and He will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth” (Hosea 6:1-3).  “So let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.”  With this call echoing in my ears, I have followed this pursuit over the many years.  Often, I felt alone on this quest to know my God deeply, yet increasingly connected to my God by the Holy Spirit who lives in each of us.

As a “ministry professional” it was disturbing to come to grips with how much of the work expected of me did not bring people closer to their God in intimate communion.  The entire system is oriented toward the Greek model of learning facts, and the audiences have their expectations tuned to that model.  Talk of intimate communion left most staring blankly with little comprehension.  Conversations about knowing God intimately, about living a great commandment love for Him, got little traction. Sadly, we are a generation of Christian adherents that knows its Bible well, and knows its God hardly at all.

At some point, I realized that my role as a ministry professional came with acculturated expectations related to “the Christian educational process.”  It was most difficult to challenge the expectations and change the conversation from facts to familiarity, from information to intimacy, and from committee work to communion with the Holy Spirit.  I left the professional ministry, oddly enough, to pursue my God and help others join in that pursuit. It has been a splendid change, one in which my God moves to meet me with revelation, intimacy, and fellowship.

“While it is good that we seek to know the Holy One, it is probably not so good to presume that we ever complete the task,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  And so, the adventure continues.

More on knowing our God intimately in the next Adventure Blog post.

Climb Free: The Love of God – A Covenant Love

A Climb Free post – a deeper look at truths that can change our view of our God, ourselves, and the way in which we can live effectively in this world.  (This is a continuation of the exploration of our God’s covenant love for us.)

The terms used for the love of our God more than any other in the Old Testament (OT) are variations of the Hebrew root word, “hesed.”  These terms are used more than 250 times in the OT, giving us a rich understanding of the complexity and depth of this love.  In many English translations, the term is rendered steadfast love, lovingkindness, or love and mercy.

Hesed is significantly different from other, more general terms for love, such as the term used for the love of God in Hosea 11:1-4: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.   But the more they were called, the more they went away from me.  They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.   It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them.  I led them with cords of compassion, with ties of love.  To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.”  While this passage gives a rich picture of how our God loves Israel, the actual term for love used here, “aheb,” is simple and straightforward.  The first use of this word in 11:1 is simply “loved,” and the second in 11:4 the more tender “ahabah,” meaning “with love” or “lovingly.”

In contrast to that term, “hesed” is a rather complex term – no one word can adequately translate this for us.  To capture the full meaning of this term requires a sentence.  This “hesed” love is the always gracious, always kind, always merciful, always pursuing, unfailing or relentless love of our God.  This is our God’s covenant love, not based upon anything we have done or can do to earn it or qualify for it.  This love comes because of the commitment of our God with Himself to love us in this way.  This perfect love flows out of His perfect character.

W.E. Vine speaks of three aspects to this word, “hesed,” which are always present and which always interact: ‘strength,’ ‘steadfastness,’ and ‘love.’ Attempting to explain this covenant love without all three aspects loses the richness and depth of it. ‘Love’ by itself can be sentimentalized, as it is in our western cultures, or universalized or generalized when considered apart from the covenant aspects of strength and steadfastness. Yet without love, the ‘strength’ or ‘steadfastness’ suggest only the covenant obligation to be deferential or charitable.  These three aspects must all be present and interacting in our understanding of this term.

Brennan Manning, in describing this covenant love of God for us, said it this way: “If you took the love of all the best mothers and fathers who ever lived (think about that for a moment) — all the goodness, kindness, patience, fidelity, wisdom, tenderness, strength and love — and united all those virtues in one person, that person would only be a faint shadow of the love and mercy in the heart of God for you and me.”

This “hesed” – David’s favorite expression for the love of his God – love is how our God expresses Himself the people He created.  Here is what the fullness of that term looks like in greater detail.

The covenant love or our God is always full of grace.  Grace is often defined as unearned or unmerited favor from our God toward us.  The covenant love of our God for us is always characterized by grace. It is this gracious love that is the basis for His reaching out to us to bring us back to Himself.  As it is written in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that (referring to the faith) not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” This gracious love even goes as far as to supply the faith we need to access the grace.

This covenant love graciously supplies all we need for life and godliness out of the abundance of His fullness.  As John 1:16 says, “For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace.”  In His always-gracious and abundant love, our God supplies everything we need to live in our weak and imperfect state, so we can live not in our own limited strength but in a state of grace and power by means of His Spirit who indwells us.  Paul speaks to this in 2 Corinthians 12:9 “And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

The covenant love of our God is always full of mercy.  Mercy has been described as the compassionate treatment of those under one’s power, out of a disposition to be kind and forgiving. Although humans often show mercy toward those with whom they already have a relationship, being unmerciful is more common to humans. Not so with our God, for whom mercy is an intrinsic character quality.  Our God’s mercy, unlike human mercy, cannot be exhausted.  It drives His interactions with humans individually and corporately, and is a foundation for His redeeming work on our behalf.

Like His grace, the mercy of God is not earned, nor is it given only to those who are His friends.  Rather, it is freely given to all, including those in open rebellion, who are already dead in their sins.  As stated in Ephesians 2:4, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved, and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus….” It has been said that grace is what our God gives us when we don’t deserve, and mercy is when our God doesn’t give us what we do deserve.  Charles Haddon Spurgeon explains the scope of our God’s mercy this way: “God’s mercy is so great that you may sooner drain the sea of its water, or deprive the sun of its light, or make space too narrow, than to diminish the great mercy of God.”

The next “Climb Free” post will continue to explore this “hesed” love and its implications for us.

Familiarity, Not Facts; Intimacy, Not Information.

“There is no peace like the peace of those whose minds are possessed with full assurance that they have known God, and God has known them, and that this relationship guarantees God’s favor to them in life, through death and on forever.”                                                                                           – JI Packer

What does it mean to know your God as it is conveyed in the Bible?  The term, “to know,” has several meanings in the English language, complicating the answer to this question. To answer this, we must include what knowing our God is not.  Knowing God as conveyed in the Bible is not knowing facts about Him.  That would be knowing about Him, and that is not the idea in this term, whether it is from the Hebrew or the Greek.  I can know all kinds of facts about a person, say, Prince Charles of England.  I can know he is a bit of a scoundrel, that he has big ears, that he served in the British military, that he is the Prince of Wales, and that He will likely never be the king of England due to the first item in this list.  But I do not know him.  I can learn more about him, including his shoe size, his favorite tea, what he does on Saturday mornings, and what he likes to watch on the telly.  Even if I become expert in everything about the prince, I still do not know him, for I have never met him and I do not have any kind of relationship with him.

Knowing that God has saved me, and that this salvation comes through Jesus does not mean that I know my God.  Even if I claim to “know Jesus as my Savior,” which is still in category of facts about Him.  I have given no evidence of knowing my God personally or intimately.  “Knowing” in the scriptures, when used in the context of knowing our God, is not about knowing facts, or status.  It is about knowing intimately, personally, as a friend knows his or her best friend.  As a husband and wife know each other.  The term implies a depth of relational intimacy.   JP Gledstone put it this way: “It is not religious knowledge that saves, but knowledge of God — knowledge of His mind, which is deeper than anything coming from His mind; knowledge of His heart, as heart only can know heart, by an instinct, a sympathy, an appreciation.”

The Hebrew idea of knowing God is one of intimate knowing, as in a familiar friend as opposed to an acquaintance. Jeremiah 9:24 says, ““…but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows me; that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord.”  Here, the idea of knowing your God as a familiar friend is linked to understanding Him, meaning to have insight and comprehension about Him.  Together, these two terms imply both a deep knowledge leading to comprehension along with a deep intimacy as with a familiar friend.

The Greek is equally clear on the nature of knowing our God.  In John 17, the final recorded prayer of Jesus on the night He was betrayed, he said these words: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou has sent.”  Here the Greek term for “know implies knowing through personal experience.”  How personal the experience?  This same term is used for sexual intimacy in Luke 1:34. Paul uses similar phraseology in speaking of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord.

JI Packer wrote, “Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord.”  And Brother Lawrence wrote, “Let us occupy ourselves entirely in knowing God. The more we know Him, the more we will desire to know Him. As love increases with knowledge, the more we know God, the more we will truly love Him. We will learn to love Him equally in times of distress or in times of great joy.”  And Robin Caldwell sums up our calling in this matter: “I couldn’t imagine my life without getting to know God. He knows me, He created me. He should be known.”

More on knowing our God intimately in the next Adventure Blog post.

“He Just Wants To Spend Time With You.”

Years ago, a speaker from Ireland was addressing a group of Young Life missionaries of which I was a part. The point of his message was the need for us to develop and maintain an intimate, conversational relationship with our God.  Quintessentially Irish, with wild red hair, a fisherman’s beard, a distinct Irish brogue, flaming passion, and a bit of wry humor, he challenged us to make the time daily to spend in unhurried communion with our God.  “He just wants to spend time with you!” was his passionate reminder at several points in the message, delivered almost as a plea to us.

The fact that our God “just wants to spend time with you” is one of the most important pieces of information we can ever grasp in our daily living.  Throughout the Bible there is this theme of the priority of an intimate, loving relationship with our God.  The stories of the great characters of the Bible are filled with references to the intimate, conversational relationships these people had with Him.  From beginning to end in the book, the obvious focus is on developing a relationship between our God and His created beings. 

We have lost much of that emphasis among Christians today, not because it is not evident but because we have overlaid it with our human-made religiosity.  We have, as humans have always done with the simple relationship our God wants with us, majored in minor points while ignoring the obvious salient issues. We then turned those minor points into the major themes of religious duty, obligation, and ritual.  These encrust the simplicity of the message that “He just wants to spend time with you,” obscuring it with expectations, structures, and rituals that impede that relationship.

As stated earlier, the idea of “knowing God” is a major theme throughout the Bible.  Many of the major characters in the Old Testament stories, those who were the pioneers, the patriarchs, the prophets and the priests of renown, had this quality of intimacy and friendship with their God.  God spoke to them, and they conversed with Him.  They understood much of His way of moving among humans, and they lived lives that were steady and grounded in that intimate communion.

The concept we call “knowing our God” is not well understood by rank and file followers of the Christian faith, for at least two reasons.  First, our English words for “know” and “knowing” imply a cognitive recognition of facts or features, and not an intimate knowing on a deeply personal level.  Second, we have raised up a professionally trained clergy class who has been schooled in theology and trained in religious duties and tasks, but who have not been discipled into a deep intimacy with their God.  They cannot take a congregation where they themselves have never traveled.

That we have exchanged the deep privilege of an intimate relationship with our creator for simply learning facts about Him and principles for “Christian living” is as tragic as a non-intimate and loveless marriage. Our intellectual approach to living out our faith has robbed us of the vitality and energy of life lived in intimate fellowship with the Holy Spirit of our God.  When we try to live the faith cognitively before our God and not intimately with Him, we hold to the form of godliness but functionally deny its power.  We reduce our God to a size we can manage in our own limited minds, allowing us, consciously or not, to control the image of our God.

JI Packer had this to say: “A God whom we could understand exhaustively, and whose revelation of Himself confronted us with no mysteries whatsoever, would be a God in man’s image, and therefore an imaginary God, not the God of the Bible at all.” Sadly, this is close to where we are today, a fact made even more sad when we understand that this God lives within us by His Holy Spirit.

More on knowing our God intimately in the next Adventure Blog post.

The Love of God – Climb Free Post

A Climb Free post – a deeper look at truths that can change our view of our God, ourselves, and the way in which we can live effectively in this world.

Years ago, I was working in a church in Idaho, developing student ministry programming and working directly with students from four communities.  One of the young men with whom I worked – we’ll call him Chuck – was constantly in trouble.  Whether at home, at school, or at church, Chuck was often in hot water due to his penchant for unwise and unrighteous choices.  At one point, the pastor of the church and I met with Chuck’s step-father to talk over what we might try next to help Chuck see his way to more effective living.  At one point in the conversation, the Pastor made a comment that I have not forgotten in the roughly 35 years since.  He said (and I can still quote it), “Well, the real problem is that Chuck has just never come to grips with the love of God for him.”  I do not remember anything else of that conversation, but those words have reverberated in my mind and my spirit ever since.

How many of us have ever really understood the nature and scope of our God’s love for us?  I have found over the years that those who truly “come to grips” with our God’s love for individual human beings will find that understanding to be life-changing.  The depth of our relationship with our God and our ability to love and obey Him will be in large part the product of our understanding and embracing that love.

While the initiation of the human race, theologically speaking, was for reasons as complex as the attributes of our God, He created us for an overriding purpose – so that He might love us.  Check out the words for CS Lewis on this idea, from his book, “The Problem of Pain.”

“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest….”

“…But that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest….”  This idea cuts cross-ways to the grain of so much of the man-made religiosity that has encrusted our faith in our God.  Man-made religiosity is not just the province of the more formal denominations, by the way.  Evangelicalism and fundamentalism are both struggling under a crushing burden of man-made religiosity that obscures and diminishes the truth and power of a pure response to the love of God.

It is hard for us to embrace the notion that we do not exist for ourselves, or in Lewis’ terms, that we are not the center and that we do not exist for our own sake.  Such is the pervasiveness of our rebellious and self-centered paradigm as humans. That we exist to receive and experience the love of our God makes our self-seeking, self-determining ways of being seem particularly unbecoming, even offensive.  How can we be self-seeking in light of a God Who is so self-sacrificing in His love for each of us individually? 

Alfred Noyes said, “The universe is centered on neither the earth nor the sun. It is centered on God.”  It is hard for us to see how our self-focused paradigm, our tendency to see ourselves as the center and to believe that we exist for our own purposes impacts our view of our God.  We do not grasp how we have made ourselves the center of our universe, and have usurped in our minds the rightful place of our God.  It bring to mind that well-worn saying, “Someday scientists, in their search for the origin of all things, will finally locate the center of the Universe.  Imagine the disappointment of millions when they find out the center of the Universe is not, after all, themselves.”

This selfish paradigm, born into our very nature due to the fall of the race, bends us away from our God as the center.  It bends us away from a free and loving friendship with Him, which is the most logical and reasonable approach to a God who loves us.  A God who loves us so much that He condescends to our level to redeem us at His own expense in order to demonstrate that love and gain our friendship.  We who claim to follow our God do this even in our expressions of faith.  Christians over time tend toward religious expressions that allow us to contain our God and control our responses to Him.  We set our own spiritual directions and do not abandon ourselves fully in a love relationship with Him.  We pursue man-made religious forms and structures at the expense of a purposeful, selfless pursuit of our God, who nonetheless pursues us and offers us His free and boundless love.

The understanding of the love that our God has for us has lost much of the richness and complexity that it should have for us. This is largely due, I think, to the blandness and selfishness that characterizes our modern, English-language concepts of love.  Perhaps this is why the love of our God for us as conveyed in the Word of God bears little resemblance to what a great many adherents to the faith to understand it to be.  To begin to “fill in the blanks” in our understanding of how our God loves us would go far in helping us to respond to Him with a deeper love and more sincere commitment.

In the next “Climb Free” post we will dig deep into the meanings of the most common and complex biblical descriptor of our God’s love for us.

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