By Linda Rex
One of the prophecies in the Old Testament which I find to be most interesting is in the book of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah wrote about Cyrus years before he became the conquering king written about in the history books.
Ironically, even though he played a type of messianic role for the Jewish people, he was not a Jew. It speaks volumes that God would work through and with a non-Jewish king to rescue his people. In Isaiah’s prophecy, God says through Isaiah that even though Cyrus didn’t even know God, God still singled him out, called him by name, and gave him a special job to do. And it wasn’t for Cyrus’ sake God did this, but for the sake of God’s relationship with his covenant people, the Israelites.
Even though Cyrus was not acquainted with the God of Israel and worshiped gods who were not real gods, he was still equipped by God for this special mission and blessed by God as he performed it.
Cyrus was indeed responsible for conquering and killing a lot of people as he took power and invaded nations. I’m sure such bloodshed was not in God’s heart—it was something in Cyrus’ heart and was his way of doing things. Yet God chose to work in and through Cyrus in the midst of all this so that he, the God of Israel, would be made known as the one and only true God, who creates and sustains all there is in heaven and on earth, and his people would be returned to their promised land to prepare the way for the real messiah.
A lot of times we differentiate between good people and bad people, assuming God only works with, in, and through good people. We figure if God is going to do something significant in this world, he’s going to do it through people who are moral, righteous people or who are people who share a particular faith or belief system.
God is a Being who can and will work out his plans to love and care for his covenant people and to accomplish his purposes in the world by whatever means he feels are necessary. He can do and sometimes does do this all on his own. But it seems more often than not he includes human beings in the process. He likes to have us participate with him in what he’s doing in the world.
Our participation in what God is doing in the world often looks much different than what we assume it should look like. Sometimes humans do evil and horrible things. But God takes these things and in spite of them, or by transforming and redeeming them, he draws us all deeper into real relationship in and with him, into life eternal within the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.
And those of us who participate with him in his work in this world are not always aware of the significance of how we are participating with God while he works out what he is trying to do. Many times, we go through life like little children, believing it is all about us, about what we are trying to accomplish, and what we are wanting to do or what we believe is important. We can be quite narcissistic in how we approach life and living. But that doesn’t keep God from finding ways to include us in what he is doing.
I don’t know how many times in my life I have realized after the fact something I said or did turned out to be a significant event in another person’s life. It may have been to me a simple, unimportant thing I did. It may have actually been a thoughtless word or deed. It could have just been an offhand comment. But in some way, it impacted another person or impacted some situation in such a way it completely altered the direction it was headed. And really, I was unaware of it at the time—I was just doing what I was doing, being me, and this amazing thing happened in spite of me.
For those of us who are trying to live good Christian lives it may be a challenge to take our focus off our efforts to do good and be good. It is easy to get caught up in whether or not we are being good people, and whether or not we are pleasing God. We can get so focused on how well we are living our lives we miss the real point of it all—that God knows us and loves us completely and thoroughly, and calls us into relationship with himself in and through Jesus Christ. God wants us to know him and love him, and to come to the place we really know and love one another as well. There is a relational focus to life in Christ which is a far cry above just being good, moral people.
Instead of being focused on how well we are performing, or whether or not we are achieving success in some enterprise or conquering some country, maybe we need to be focused on getting to know the real God—the One who made all things and sustains all things by the Word of his power. Maybe this has more to do with growing in our relationships of love and grace with God and our fellow human beings than about exactly what we are doing in a specific moment. Maybe what is really significant is living each moment of our lives in the presence of and in real relationship with our God, and acknowledging the truth of who he is and who we are in Christ.
I don’t think any of us truly understand the significance of Jesus sharing in our humanity. There is something about him as God being here in human flesh which is important to our day to day existence. He shares in our particular profession or human activity, and we can participate in some way in what God is doing in the world while we are doing it.
Yes, we need to consider whether or not it is a real participation in what God is doing in the world. Is Jesus in the midst of it and does it reflect his nature and way of being? Is it life-giving and life-sustaining? What does it mean to have real life in and with the Father, Son, and Spirit—and how is doing this particular thing a sharing in God’s life?
But we also need to remember it’s always more about our relationship with God and with those around us than it is a matter of perfect behavior, abundant production, and material success. It’s learning to walk through life knowing and believing God is in you and with you in the midst of whatever you are doing in every moment.
We live in and with our God, and he is always at work in us and in our world, and he invites us to come along and participate in what he’s doing. We may not know him fully yet, but he knows us thoroughly and completely, and loves us, and calls us to live in and with him both now and forever, and we can do this in and through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit.
Dear Abba, thank you for inviting us to share life with you in and through your Son Jesus Christ and by the gift of your Holy Spirit. Enable us to focus less on our material success and physical accomplishments and more on living in loving, gracious relationships with you and all those we encounter day to day. Enable us to do all things in a way which is a real participation in your love and life through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“God’s Message to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom he took by the hand to give the task of taming the nations, of terrifying their kings—He gave him free rein, no restrictions: “I’ll go ahead of you, clearing and paving the road. I’ll break down bronze city gates, smash padlocks, kick down barred entrances. I’ll lead you to buried treasures, secret caches of valuables—confirmations that it is, in fact, I, God, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name. It’s because of my dear servant Jacob, Israel my chosen, that I’ve singled you out, called you by name, and given you this privileged work. And you don’t even know me! I am God, the only God there is. Besides me there are no real gods. I’m the one who armed you for this work, though you don’t even know me, so that everyone, from east to west, will know that I have no god-rivals. I am God, the only God there is. I form light and create darkness, I make harmonies and create discords. I, God, do all these things. Open up, heavens, and rain. Clouds, pour out buckets of my goodness! Loosen up, earth, and bloom salvation; sprout right living. I, God, generate all this.” Isaiah 45:1-8 MSG
by Linda Rex
There are some things in life we just don’t like doing, and not everyone shares the same dislike of doing certain things. For much of my life I haven’t liked washing dishes, probably because it was a household chore forced on me as a child and it involved washing an entire counter’s worth of dirty dishes. Today washing dishes is something I’ve learned to tolerate, and I thank God for my dishwasher all the time because it is such a blessing to me. I doubt I will ever grow to love the task of cleaning the grime off dishes, but I do remember on occasion to thank God I even have the dishes to wash and the food to wash off of them.
And that’s what got me to thinking. What about those things in life we just don’t like doing, but we know doing them is the right thing to do—something God wants us to do? We run up against these things all the time—it’s a part of our human existence. Sometimes we feel we don’t have the heart to do what we know we need to do. But maybe we’re wrong.
The Israelites stood on the shores of the Jordan River and Moses began to talk with them about the journey they had been on with their God, how he had created them and then redeemed them by bringing them out of slavery, and how he would bring them into their new land. And Moses gave them the directive God had placed in his mouth: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:5)
The evidence of Israel’s travels through the wilderness show they did not and didn’t seem to be capable of truly loving the God who created and redeemed them. They seemed to always drift back towards their days in slavery or over into the idolatry of the nations they encountered. They definitely did not have the heart to obey God, much less love him wholeheartedly. If anything, their heart was turned away from God and not towards him.
There were times in my life where I felt it was monstrously unfair for God to expect Israel to love him with their whole heart when they weren’t capable of doing it. It seemed horribly unjust.
But as time has gone by, I have come to know God a little better. I have learned to look at these stories from a different perspective. In the context of this directive to Israel we hear Moses describing all the ways in which God had shown his love and faithfulness to them, and how he was going to continue to faithfully fulfill his covenant love relationship with them as they moved on into the promised land.
The basis of God’s request Israel love him wholeheartedly was within himself, in his love and faithfulness. It was not something they had to drum up on their own—which is what they kept trying to do. God had called them into relationship with himself, had given them all the ways in which they needed to live to fully and joyfully participate in that relationship. By his love and grace he would ensure their relationship with him would last and they would indeed love him with all their heart and soul and might.
As time went by, God sent prophets to Israel to call them back into their covenant relationship of love. We read in Hosea and other places of the heartache this nation continually caused God by their infidelities and indifference and outright rebellion against him. But God was faithful to them in spite of their unfaithfulness. God was loving and gracious to them in spite of their ingratitude and rejection of him. The prophets told the people one day God would give them a new heart and a new mind which would enable them to love their Redeemer with their whole hearts. He would make it possible for them to do what they were created to do—to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another.
This should be a comfort to you and to me. We know in our heart of hearts we are incapable of truly loving God and each other as we ought. All we have to do is listen to the daily news to understand how true it is—people cannot and do not love God wholeheartedly, much less love one another. Even the ones we expect to be truly loving people—pastors, preachers, teachers, caregivers—turn out to be just as selfish, greedy and cruel as the next person. And we see within ourselves the reality of our own inability to love God or others as we should. And it scares us.
It is important for us to see our capacity and desire to love God wholeheartedly comes from God himself and is not something we do under our own power or by our own efforts. It is all of grace.
The reason God came to earth in human form was so each of us could one day share in God’s very own capacity to love and be loved. In Jesus Christ we are each taken up through his life, death, resurrection and ascension into the very life and love of God himself. When the Father, through Jesus, sent the Spirit to humanity, he gave each of us the capacity to love with God’s love. He gave us the heart to love God wholeheartedly and to love one another. We have a new heart, a new mind and a new soul—we share in Christ’s capacity to truly love.
God is gracious and allows us to choose for ourselves what we will live out of—the broken and diseased heart which died with Christ, or the new heart bought and paid for and given to us in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and in the gift of the Spirit. The evil one likes to keep us focused on the old dead, evil heart, and does his best to destroy the heart God created within us in Christ. He likes to distract us with all the old ways of being and doing, making us think we are incapable of loving God or others.
But nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ—in God we live and move and have our being. (Rom. 8:38-39; Acts 17:28) God’s love is as much a part of us as Christ is, for he shares fully in our humanity even now. The Spirit awakens us to faith in Christ. He gives us the capacity to be the loving people we are in Christ. He grows us up into Christ and enables us to love God wholeheartedly and to love others with Christ’s love. He works to change us, to transform our hearts by faith.
God does not ask us to do what he does not give us the capacity to do. He continually is the basis of our relationship with him, and he pours himself into us through Jesus in the Spirit so we can grow in our love for him and our love for one another. Our freedom to resist and reject his work within us is also a part of his gracious loving act, for he will not have robots in his family—only adopted, loving children who love him wholeheartedly out of a love which has its roots within himself, in the perfect perichoretic love which exists between the Father, Son and Spirit.
So this whole thing of loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength is not a matter of our efforts, but rather a matter of faith—of trusting in the love and faithfulness of God and relying upon his gracious work in us through Jesus and by the Spirit to create within us a desire and willingness, and even a passion, to love God completely and entirely with a deep, everlasting love.
In a way, I suppose, it’s kind of like me putting the dishes in the dishwasher, throwing in the detergent and turning the dial to “normal”. All I’m doing is participating with the dishwasher in getting the dishes done. I don’t have to do them, I just have to bring them to the dishwasher and allow the dishwasher to do its work.
Thank God that he is not like a machine which breaks down and does only what I tell it to do. Instead he is a loving, compassionate Being who is faithful and has already taken care of everything through his Son and by his Spirit. I just get to be a part of what he’s doing. I can rest fully in him and trust he will give me the heart to love him wholeheartedly, and when I don’t, I can trust I’m already forgiven and accepted in Christ. Isn’t that just great? I just love that about him!
Thank you, God, that you never give us anything to do which you do not give us the capacity to do through your Son Jesus and by your Spirit. Do finish what you have begun in us—we trust you will enable us to love you wholeheartedly and follow you wherever you lead. Through Jesus and by your Spirit we pray, amen.
“And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’” Luke 10:27 NASB
“They shall be My people, and I will be their God; and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me. I will rejoice over them to do them good and will faithfully plant them in this land with all My heart and with all My soul.” Jeremiah 32:38–41 NASB
by Linda Rex
One of the most difficult aspects of living in covenant relationship with another human being is coming to grips with the need for unconditional love and grace. Since most of our lives we work and live within the idea of making and keeping contracts, much of our culture is based upon this type of economic and social structure. So when we come to our relationship with God, as well as the covenant of marriage, it is easy to fall back upon this type of thinking and being.
This morning I was listening to Dr. James Torrance ask the question, “Is our God the Triune God of grace or is he a contract God?” His purpose for asking that question was to help his listeners consider the difference between a covenant and a contract. Most of us clearly understand what a contract is—an agreement between two people which can be broken if one or the other does not perform completely the requirements of the contract.
When we mistakenly assume that the covenant God made with Israel and humanity is actually a contract, then what happens is that we put the terms of the agreement in the wrong order: law, consequences, grace. But if we understand that God’s covenant is one of love and grace, and is unconditional, then we understand that the proper order is: grace, law, consequences.
In other words, a covenant looks entirely different from a contract. Torrance uses the example of a marriage covenant to describe the difference. If we think a marriage agreement is a contract (if you do this, then I will do that), then whenever one or the other members of the relationship fail to meet the other’s expectations, then the relationship is broken, and each person can walk away from the relationship at any time. There isn’t really anything to bind two people together if marriage is treated like a contract. You and I both know that at some point in any relationship, someone is going to fail to meet the other person’s expectations. It’s a given, because we’re human.
But in a covenant, unconditional love and grace come first. The commitment to the other supersedes all other considerations in the relationship. Two people agree to love one another no matter what may happen in life, no matter what they each might do. Then there is an understanding that whatever they may do or say to one another will have consequences for the relationship. But the binding of the two people together by unconditional love and grace keeps the relationship intact even when there is a failure at some point to meet the other person’s expectations.
This is what God did with Israel and what he did, in fact, with all humanity. God determined that he was going to draw human beings into relationship with himself. We as human beings have so often broken our part of that covenant just as Israel broke their part of their covenant with God over and over. But God has always been faithful to what he promised. He loved us prior to us loving him. He forgave us prior to us even knowing we needed forgiven. His love and grace are unconditional. This is true covenant.
This is where relationships get tough. Are we willing to forgive the unforgiveable? Are we willing to go the extra mile? Are we willing to keep loving someone who is all prickles and thorns?
You see, God loved Israel unconditionally. Over and over, he forgave his people all of their unfaithfulness to him. Were there consequences to Israel’s breaking of the covenant relationship? Yes—they experienced slavery, oppression and devastation. Even though God allowed them to experience the full consequences of their unfaithfulness to him, he, in time, laid down his life for his people, as well as for all humanity.
God’s love and grace were and are prior to any law. Law describes what a healthy happy relationship looks like and what the consequences are when people don’t live in ways that coincide with a healthy happy relationship. God’s love and grace were present and available even when Israel failed to keep their side of the covenant and experienced the consequences of it. God’s love and grace are also present and available to each of us, in spite of our failures to live faithfully and lovingly in relationship with our God.
Yes, God often allows human beings to experience the pain and devastation that comes with living in ways that break that relationship. And that is where we need to rethink how we handle our covenant relationships. It is easy to believe that in a marriage, if one person loves the other no matter what, then they have to accept whatever behavior the other person does even if it is harmful or involves infidelity or substance abuse. But we need to rethink that.
We are called to love one another unconditionally within the marriage covenant. If a person within the relationship is an addict and is causing destruction to the relationship and to themselves, is it truly loving to allow them to continue in that destructive behavior? No. So they need to experience the consequences of their behavior, but in such a way that the covenant relationship remains intact if at all possible. Love calls the broken person to healing and wholeness and provides a safe place for them to begin to get help. Love does not leave them in their brokenness and enable them to continue their self-destruction. This is when love has to be tough.
When a person is unfaithful in a relationship, there is so much pain involved. The gut level response is to bail out of the relationship. But if indeed unconditional love and grace come first in the covenant—then there must be room, if both parties are willing, to forgive and to rebuild the relationship on a new foundation of grace. When Israel was unfaithful to God, we see the language of divorce in Hosea—yet God did not divorce Israel. Instead, he came in the person of Jesus, laid down his life, and died in her place. Wow! Most of us never get to that place of self-sacrifice and forgiveness in our relationships!
To truly love and forgive is to lay down one’s life for the other so that they can be and become all they were created to be as image-bearers of God. The Triune God of grace teaches us what covenant love looks like—and calls us to live in that relationship with him and with one another. Consequences have their place in covenant relationships. Pain and sin will happen. But unconditional love and grace trumps it all.
God of grace and love, thank you for your faithfulness and compassion. Grow in us the capacity to love and forgive as you do. Teach us what it means to live in covenant love as you do with us. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“I will establish My covenant between Me and you [Abraham] and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” Genesis 17:7 NASB
Wednesday night at our Hermitage small group we were discussing “Killing Expectations”. Judy, who leads discipleship class at Good News Fellowship, brought up an excellent question. As a former school teacher, she was familiar with the use of positive expectations in helping children to achieve their personal best in school. So, what about positive expectations—aren’t they a good thing?
What I gathered from the ensuing discussion was that we need to clarify the difference between expectations of performance based on subjective standards with the more objective standards of being which have their basis in the Being of God. Expectations of being involve our character, personality, temperament, and aptitudes—in other words, our capacity as human beings—something that is unique to each person.
These expectations of being have their basis in God, and like the nature of God’s Being, they reflect the Persons who exist in loving communion, in unity, diversity and equality. Jesus Christ, who is the perfect reflection of the Father, is the supreme standard from which all humans draw their being. And Jesus performed perfectly all that is expected of each of us during his life here on earth, and died and rose in our place. He took up into himself our humanity with all its missing of the mark and failure to meet expectations, and he stands in our place.
God calls us to put on Christ—to put on his perfected humanity—so that we can and will become all that God intended each of us to be as humans. God’s expectations, whatever they are, are fulfilled in Christ, and now he calls us to participate in Christ’s perfected humanity, to grow up into Christlikeness.
The thing is, we tend to read the scriptures, with its lists of commandments, from the viewpoint of expectations that God has for us. We read the scriptures backwards, putting performance first, and then grace and love. But God always puts grace and love first.
For example, we say we have to keep the Ten Commandments or we are worthy of death and God will punish us. Then we say, if we repent and confess our breaking of these commandments, then God will forgive us and we will be saved. This puts grace after law instead of prior to it.
We can forget that before God ever gave any commandments, he made a covenant agreement—something which was not based on performance, but on the love, grace and character of God. God rescued his people from slavery, not because they were good, obedient people, but because he loved them, had made a commitment to them, and they needed saving. He was the one who over the centuries, not only guaranteed the keeping of the covenant, but also renewed it over and over whenever it was broken.
Jesus in his life, ministry and teaching, put grace first. For example, in Mark 2, we read the story of a man who was paralyzed, whose friends brought him to Jesus to be healed. What’s interesting is that Jesus saw the faith of his friends, not the paralyzed man’s faith. And the first thing he said to him was not “Repent and believe”, nor was it “Be healed!” No, it was “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The first thing Jesus addressed in this situation was forgiveness—something only God could give, and he gave it without any expectations in advance.
Later, after dealing with the unbelieving scribes, Jesus gave the man a command—to pick up his bed and walk, to act upon the forgiveness he had given him. Obedience to Jesus followed receiving forgiveness for sins the man hadn’t even confessed. Grace before law. How counterintuitive is that?
That beautiful phrase Jesus spoke on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” shows us again that God’s heart of grace precedes any command God may give us. W. Paul Young in “The Shack”, points out that it isn’t God’s nature to put expectations on us, so much as it is to wait with expectancy to see what we will do and how we will do it. God already knows the extent of our inability to reflect his perfection. And it does not keep him from loving us and encountering us in grace. His focus is on his relationship with us, not on our performance.
Whatever lists of things we find in the Bible that tell us what we should do and how we should live are not prescriptive—as in a doctor’s order for medicine. But rather they are descriptive. They describe what it looks like when we live in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit and are fully sharing in their Triune love and life. Not doing these things means we are not living in agreement with who we are as God’s beloved children, and so we will experience painful consequences as a result. And God doesn’t want that for us.
So, going back to the question of positive expectations. We need to keep in mind what we are talking about isn’t necessarily expectations of being, but mostly probably expectations of doing. We are expecting a person to perform in a certain way or to achieve a certain standard. These standards may be established by institutions, society, businesses, or even by people. Often these standards do not take into account the reality that people are unique and don’t all perform or achieve in the same way or to the same level.
Benchmarks, such as those used by schools to monitor their students’ scholastic performance, are useful tools. They encourage achievement and improvement, and help prevent failures in learning or service. They can be quite subjective, depending on how they are defined and assessed. They most likely do not take into account differences in being or circumstance, or relational factors such as grace and love.
We would like people to achieve their personal best and be effective contributors to the overall goals of the group. But unless we remember that we are all persons, with limitations and brokenness that inhibit our perfect performance in every situation, we will hold others to expectations that may be destructive rather than life-giving. The key, I believe is relationship—grace and love first. Then expectations or rules. In that order.
Thank you, Father, that you were the first One to move in our relationship with you. You forgave us long before we even realized we needed forgiveness. Thank you that you did not wait for us to say or do the right thing first, but you went ahead and offered us grace anyway. Grant us the heart and will to offer forgiveness freely to others as you have offered it to us. And may we always live in a way that shows our gratitude through love and obedience. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, amen.
“And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:5