Background Scripture: John 15:9-17
Quotes of the Week:
Whoever loves much, does much.
Thomas a' Kempis
As we go through our lives and are involved in different pursuits, we will usually want to do what it takes to increase our probability of success. What would you be willing to do to increase the odds of success in different endeavors? For example, if you have a career, what steps would you be willing to take to increase the odds of promotion? For many jobs, there are usually minimal requirements that a person will need to know (and do) to attain and keep that job. However, in most instances, there is a greater chance of promotion and success for those who will expend more effort (driven specifically towards a career). For many careers, there is continuing education, seminars and books that can help increase the odds of success. If you are an athlete, what might you need to do to go to the next level? I used to play tennis fairly competitively and there is a ranking system in the USTA that one could climb, assuming they put forth the effort. The higher you climbed, the more skills you needed to obtain.
How do you think a Christian's life might change if they were willing to put the same effort into their daily life that they would be willing to put into bettering themselves in a career or sport?
It is very easy for any of us to get into the habit of attending church and hearing God's word, but only doing it ritualistically, because we 'have to'. Unfortunately, for many believers, their "Christianity" gets compartmentalized. At times, it may be very evident to anyone who is around that person that they are a believer, yet at other times, you would have to look very hard to find a shred of evidence to prove it. I often think of the Russian stacking dolls, called babushkas. These are generally wooden dolls, with smaller wooden dolls contained within. For many people, these dolls are a pretty good depiction of their lives. Each doll would be an area of life, such as career, entertainment, church activities, hobbies, relationships and so forth. If our Christianity is only evident in its own area, have we really allowed Christ to impact our lives?
It has always amazed me how much time or energy we (myself included) will spend to better ourselves in many pursuits in life, yet we often disregard what we know we need to do to be the person that God has called us to be. Although we would never say it (out loud), perhaps many believe that the benefit from expending effort in a career results in a more tangible outcome than the benefit of being who God has called us to be. Even if we would never say that, would others assume that to be true, based on our actions?
This next series of lessons will briefly discuss some 'practices' that should be common to believers. From a thousand foot level, they seem to be easy things to do (when it is convenient to do). The practices are love, encouragement, forgiveness, service, submission and acceptance. In certain circumstances, these may seem easy for most, but they become very difficult when life doesn't go as we would have hoped. For example, it may be easy to love when people are lovable in return, but it becomes hard to love when we feel that it is all one sided or when we have been hurt by others. Similarly, it can be easy to encourage, forgive, serve, submit or accept in certain circumstances, but it can seem impossible in other situations. For some, even the high level view of these practices uncovers personal issues and can be very convicting.
Most people are adept at rationalization of behavior, and being able to explain why some of these practices are not applicable in their personal situations. We like to say that we are in line with what God has called us to do, but in reality, we often morph the intended meaning of what He has said to fit our own situation. For example, we may hear that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our loophole may be in the definition of "our neighbor" so narrowly that we can claim conformance to His command by managing our own subset of 'neighbors'.
To become a believer implies that we have come to Christ and have accepted Him as our Savior. When this has happened, we know that we have eternity with God and we are forgiven for our sins. For some believers, this is where growth seems to end and is stunted. When we draw near to God, we realize that we need to accept Jesus not only as our Savior, but also our Lord. When Jesus is our Lord, we begin to think about what He would have us do - or not do. His Lordship will begin to impact our habits and our choices. As we continue to mature, we learn about what it means to abide in Christ. To abide is less about what we do, and more about who we are. Abiding in Christ will impact our relationships and how we deal with others in our lives. It is in this aspect of our lives where the practices in this study become more and more a part of who we are.
Isn't it amazing that Christ knows everything about you, and He still loves you? We know our deepest thoughts and the sinful deeds that we have committed, along with the many good things we may have also done. For many, the past still weighs heavy on them, and, because of their past, many people have real problems forgiving themselves or even accepting themselves. Yet, despite whatever we have done (or are doing or will do), we are loved by Christ (even though He knows everything about us). Can you imagine how it would be if we were to truly know the inner person of others around us? In many cases, we would refuse to love them at all.
Often, we try to love others, but are easily sidetracked. How did Christ show His love to us? He was obedient to the point of death. At any point, we all would understand if Christ had fought back or stood up to His being mistreated. Yet He fulfilled His purpose. This didn't happen by accident, but it was His focus in life. Similarly, obedience in our own lives requires change, so that we can focus. By default, each of us are very self centered. Even as we begin to understand what it means to be obedient, we realize that there is a big chasm between knowing what is right and doing it. Often, the right thing to do is in conflict with what we would do to better ourselves.
Some people see obedience to God's commands as some sort of killjoy to life. They may believe that doing whatever they want to do as opposed to what God has called them to do would give a 'better' life. All throughout life, we see the need to conform to laws of various kinds. We may not agree with laws that the government places on our lives (i.e. taxes), but we know that life goes easier when we abide by them. When we were growing up, we may not have agreed with all the rules that were given by our parents or other authorities, such as school teachers. In some cases, we know that rules were arbitrary. As parents, we know this when we are asked why and the only recourse we have is to say "Because".
We need to realize that God's commands enable us to live life in the ways that He, the Creator of life, intended and are not simply commands for the sake of commands. When we disobey God's commands, we are really saying that we know better how things should be. However, over time and as we mature as a believer, we learn that obedience to God's commands makes our joy complete and truly enhances our lives. At some point, God's commands may seem restrictive, but just as we see a need for 'restrictive' traffic lights and stop signs to help keep us safe, we realize that God's commands are also intended for what is best for our lives.
The greatest love for one's life is shown by what Jesus did for us. He laid down His life for us. Certainly, we are not called to lay our lives down for others in the same way Jesus did, as that literally can only be a one-time occurrence, but we are called to serve one another in a self denying way. This can be very difficult, but when you are able to put others ahead of you, it is a great step towards showing love to them.
There are a few things that we can think about that will help us love one another. These have much to do with our attitudes. First, we must be willing to acknowledge our own mistakes. Many relationships are damaged when people are not willing to say that they are wrong, but are always looking to blame others. Some people may never say they were wrong, but are you willing to admit your own mistakes? I think back to the old show "Happy Days' and Fonzie, who could never say he was wrong. Second, we need to focus on the positives of others. Have you ever thought about how much more you enjoy it when others speak positively of you instead of criticizing what you have done? Wouldn't you think others would appreciate positive words? If you look at people, everybody has positive aspects. What might change if you were to focus on those for others? Third, we need to be willing to give more than we get. Can you imagine what relationships within the church would look like if more people chosen to give of themselves, rather than seeing what they can get?
There could be many more tangible things that we could consider in order to enhance our ability to love one another. Certainly, we are called to love one another by Christ, but if you just try and grin and bear it, you will have many problems loving others. What changes do you need to make in your life to be able to practice loving others?