This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Afraid to Know God - Part 3

Many Christians know God in only the most casual way, perhaps merely as the Savior who rescued them from hell. For some, the reason they have never advanced in their relationship with God is because they don't realize He is worth knowing. They fear a relationship with Him will be disappointing and not worth the effort. Others may fear that getting to know God well will require too much of their time, preventing them from pursuing other interests.

I believe Christians also fear getting to know God well because they think it will require an unwelcome change in their hearts and lives. They are afraid it will demand a lifestyle change - a complete overhaul of the way they have always lived and of the way they enjoy living. It is uncomfortable and unsettling to consider the difference a vibrant relationship with God would make.

People who are friends (that is, who enjoy a relationship) have similarities - shared characteristics and interests. Friends do not need to be identical, but if their friendship is to flourish, they must agree on basics. If Person A is on a higher or nobler level, the only hope for lasting friendship is if Person B admires and aspires to that higher level. At the very least, Person B would have to make concessions, conforming to Person A's ideals while they are together.

This sharing of ideals and values must also be part of a close relationship with God. In fact, God Himself expects and requires it. "For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:29). "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy'" (I Peter 1:14-16). God wants His children to be like Him. A close relationship with Him requires that, and a quest for such a relationship reveals it.

Christians are afraid that as they seek to know God better, they will come across commands or instructions that will place unwelcome demands on them. In fact, the Bible will reveal general instructions like the following. "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2). "'Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,' says the Lord, 'and do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you'" (II Corinthians 6:17). "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:27).

In the pursuit of God, Christians will also be confronted with specific commands and instructions like these taken from Ephesians. "Showing tolerance for one another in love" (4:2). "Laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor" (4:25). "Do not let the sun go down upon your anger" (4:26). "Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth" (4:29). "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you" (4:31). "Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other" (4:32). "But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you" (5:3). "And there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting" (5:4). "And do not get drunk with wine" (5:18). "Always giving thanks for all things" (5:20). "Wives, be subject to your own husbands" (5:22). "Husbands, love your wives" (5:25).

If Christians have a mindset that they cannot do those things or a predetermination that they will not do certain things, they will understandably be reluctant to seek a close relationship with the God who demands them. What makes this fear even more powerful is that Christians are already aware of many of God's requirements; they are afraid of the many more instructions they will find of which they are not yet aware. They are afraid that being truly devoted to God will make their lives miserable.

Another aspect of fear is that of becoming extreme. In the course of their lives, most people have come across some pretty weird Christians. I'm thinking of people who are out of balance spiritually or who have a vital deficiency in their understanding, and who truly are extreme. There is perhaps a fear of becoming like that (or even that those people represent what a devoted Christian should become).

Even ignoring these unbalanced Christians, there is a certain amount of uncertainty about dedicated Christians. In my earlier years, I remember observing spiritually-minded Christians. As I heard them talk about God, discuss sermons or books, and pray spontaneously, I rolled my eyes (at least mentally) and asked myself, "Are they for real?" I thought those people were talking a certain way in order to impress others or appear spiritual. Maybe it wasn't so weird for older Christians, but it sure seemed fake to me when it came from college students. I realize now that my skepticism reflected my own spiritual shallowness. At the time, however, I could relate to the fear in becoming that kind of person. It seemed extreme to me, and surely I would appear radical or freakish to others.

Getting to know God well will demand change. A close relationship with God requires all-out commitment to live for Him on a daily basis. Being a Christian is not merely a brief conversation that leads to understanding salvation and praying a prayer. Neither is being a Christian defined by being in church for an hour or two each week (or at least most weeks). Being a Christian involves getting to know God and having a constant relationship with Him. Such a pursuit will regularly reveal new truth, consistently reinforce known truth, and repeatedly challenge complacency.

Such change, however, does not make Christians' lives miserable. Even in human relationships, someone "in love" will find himself doing and enjoying things he never thought possible, because those activities are part of interacting with the one he loves. This is even more so with God, because God is able to work supernaturally in hearts to make Christians enjoy new things as they progress in their relationship with Him. The anticipated changes can bring nervousness or fear, but a vibrant relationship with God will chase those fears away. Devoted believers will find that they really would not want it to be any other way. The changes that God brings open the path to unprecedented peace and blessing.

"You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever." Psalm 16:11 (NASB)

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Afraid to Know God - Part 2

In the previous post, I looked at the idea of being afraid to know God in relation to God Himself. I believe Christians often hold back in their pursuit of God or fail to get serious about knowing Him because they are afraid of what they will find God to be. They fear they will be disappointed in finding that God possesses flaws like they have seen in every other relationship. The conclusion was that God is worth knowing because He perfectly fills every role, completely unlike humans who do fail.

I want to turn the focus now toward fear that stems from the believers' thoughts of themselves. As Christians consider getting to know God better, I believe many are nervous about what that will mean for them personally. They think it might impact their lives in undesired ways, and they aren't quite sure they want that. They wonder if the benefit (of which they are still uncertain) will outweigh the investment. In short, they are afraid of what they think coming to know God better will require.

I believe one aspect of this fear is of the time it will take to get to know God. Time is required to build every relationship. If we consider a spouse or a good friend, or even a more casual acquaintance like a neighbor or co-worker, we realize that relationships grow over time. It is the time we spend together in shared activities, in conversation, in correspondence, and so on, that allows us to get to know each other.

In fact, there was a very first time that we met each person; previous to that we knew nothing at all about him or her. Consider how incredibly that knowledge has changed in the case of a spouse, for instance. We know infinitely more than we first did, and that knowledge came through time spent together.

Most believers probably have an inkling that such a pursuit will involve more time in the Bible, something they may already find challenging. If a believer's Biblical intake has been limited to church services or five minutes with a devotional book, striking out on his own can seem like a real challenge. We'll look at the "how" of this in future posts, but for now I'm thinking more of the "when." If Bible study has not previously been part of the daily routine, it can be difficult to know how to fit in it. After all, we usually already have more to do than we have time to do it in.

I cannot argue with that perception. I can only say that it comes down to priorities. We find time for what is especially important to us. If we had any concept of the benefit that would come from knowing God better, we would find it easier to devote time to that pursuit, and we would more readily divert time from other activities.

That's where the fear comes into play, and the fear in essence reveals our priorities. For example, in order to devote time to getting to know God, we're afraid we'll have to give up (or limit) . . .
          a favorite TV show (or one of them)
          time on the computer (Internet, games, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.)
          spending time with friends (singles' group, young mothers' group)
          talking on the phone
          volunteering or involvement in a community group
          a perfectly clean house and gourmet meals
          a hobby
          expanding or maintaining the flower garden

None of those activities are necessarily bad, but if we place them above knowing God, we are revealing where our priorities lie. It may be possible to keep doing all of those things while also investing time with God, but it may also be possible that God will want us to eliminate or curtail some of those activities so that we can devote time to the greater end of knowing Him.

The good news is that we don't have to become masters in knowing God all at once. We might think, "It has taken me twenty years to get to know my husband, and sometimes I still don't understand him." That is just the way it will be with God. Our knowledge will grow over time as we spend time with him. Our initial efforts might yield significant results, just as the knowledge of a husband grew dramatically in the first months.

We cannot get frustrated, however, if the reward for our efforts falls short of our expectations. Much like a financial investment, our dedication to knowing God will yield increased reward over time. It is important that we learn some basic things to start out; later truth will build upon earlier truth, but it will be necessary for the earlier truth to exist before the later truth can be achieved. There are things about God that we won't have the capacity to understand fully until we have grown in maturity. Continued interactions gradually build on the initial foundation.

Getting to know God does require time, and we must commit to that investment. On an encouraging note, knowing God does not require multiple hours of focused attention every day. We do not need to lay the rest of our lives aside to focus solely on knowing God. Because knowing God is a lifetime pursuit, it is made up of multitudes of individual steps. A step or two each day will gradually add up to give progress on our journey - but we must take those small steps.

Just as with a retirement account, we don't need a huge investment to get started, but we do need some investment. The amount of time we spend will vary depending on the legitimate demands of our schedules and the depth of passion we have for such a pursuit. While the first factor may be out of our control, the second is not. God will bless whatever amount of effort we make, but, in general, the more we invest, the greater dividends we will receive, and therefore the more we will continue to want to invest. Seeking to know God better is a worthwhile use of our time. We need not fear that time invested in this pursuit will be wasted, nor that it will prevent us from doing something better.

"Thus says the LORD, 'Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows me.'" Jeremiah 9:23-24a (NASB)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Afraid to Know God - Part 1

Why don't Christians know God better? Why does He seem distant from many Christians? Christians know God, of course, but how many actually KNOW Him? I believe much of the reason for a shallow relationship with God is that believers are scared to know Him - not so much fear that He will aggressively harm them, but more fear of what they will find God to be.

After all, every other relationship brings disappointment, so why would one with God be any different? Reluctance to build a relationship with God may stem from a belief that God is like people. It is reasonable to evaluate the relationship with God in terms of human relationships, since God does use common relationships to picture His relationship with Christians. Unfortunately, imperfect human relationships can damage one's perspective regarding his relationship with God. For example . . .

God is a Father. Human fathers fail. Some are completely absent. Others fail to clearly demonstrate love. They may be physically or verbally abusive. They make bad decisions and at times cause pain to their children.

God identifies Himself as the Bridegroom to His bride, the church. No earthly marriage is perfect. Husbands sometimes lack sensitivity. They may overlook needs or forget special days. They can be too distracted for conversation, can say hurtful things, and can initiate heart-rending arguments.

God calls Himself a Friend to sinners. Human friendships can be a wonderful blessing, but they are never without problems. The issues can range from minor slights, perhaps unintentional, to major blowouts, perhaps even agonizing rifts or termination of the relationship.

God is a King. Even the best human kings leave much to be desired. They have the tendency to abuse their power and to enjoy wealth and pleasure by taking advantage of their position. Their poor choices can destroy individual lives or adversely affect entire populations.

God is a Judge. That's a frightening role in today's society. Even the best judges can make faulty decisions. They can minimize consequences and deny justice. Too frequently judges misinterpret the law so badly that they violate morality and protect the guilty while the innocent suffer.

God (Christ) is a Priest. An earthly priest (or pastor) could be hypocritical, living a shameful life while preaching otherwise. He may be unworthy of his position. He may be overtaken in serious sins. He might take his ministry lightly, failing to give it proper reverence.

God is a Shepherd. While perhaps not seeming to be intrinsically negative, neither is a shepherd typically seen as glamorous or respectable. He could easily be perceived as uneducated and undignified.

Each of these relationship pictures that is intended to help believers understand aspects of God's character has potential weaknesses. Every believer has seen examples of the faulty relationships described above, and has perhaps been personally damaged by them.

Christians consider their experience with a neglecting father, an insensitive spouse, an unfaithful friend, an oppressive king, an unfair judge, an unworthy priest, and a lowly shepherd; they argue that if God is like that, why should they bother getting to know Him? Why should they work on another relationship when it will inevitably just lead to frustration and disappointment like all the others? After all, how great can a relationship with God be?

There is a major flaw with this line of thinking, and it is this: God is not a human. Each of the shortcomings described above is what humans do, but none of them are what God does. People perform each of these roles imperfectly, and human failures cannot be used as a basis to judge God's divine character.

To be sure, there are positive relationships with fathers, spouses, etc., that partially illustrate what God is like. There is no earthly picture, however, that is capable of adequately portraying the blessed relationship that is possible with a perfect God.

God is a perfect Father. God is a perfect Spouse. God is a perfect Friend. God is a perfect King. God is a perfect Judge. God is a perfect Priest. God is a perfect Shepherd. God takes every positive aspect of these roles and performs it beautifully, while avoiding each of the negative pitfalls that plague others in those same roles.

If a believer's reluctance to get to know God is due to his fear of disappointment in what God might be like, that fear is unfounded. If one knew what God is really like, he would have no such fear. He would have no hesitation in seeking to know Him better. Because God is perfect in every way, there is no other relationship that can surpass the one that can be enjoyed with Him. God is worth knowing!

"Remember the former things long past, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me." Isaiah 46:9 (NASB)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Dying Thief

             Whose Fault? (Sonnet 21)
Our Lord was brought to face the angry crowd,
And Pilate said, “I find no fault in Him.”
Not satisfied, they cried with voices loud
And made demands to pass a sentence grim.
No fault in Him at all - His life was pure.
Though tempted sore, He would not yield to sin.
Without a flaw, His innocence is sure,
A guilty charge impossible to win.
Why die condemned when Jesus had no fault?
He died for faults, ‘tis true, but they were mine.
Incapable of meeting sin’s assault,
With frequency I broke the law divine.
Though I’ve offended with transgressions rife,
He shed His sinless blood to give me life.

"Pilate came out again and said to them, 'Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.'" John 19:4 (NASB)

"But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed." Isaiah 53:5 (NASB)

I am thankful for my loving Savior who suffered and paid the price for my sin, and rejoicing in the resurrection through which He conquered sin and death for me. In recent days my mind has gone often to the second stanza of William Cowper's hymn "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood":

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.