Imagine your employer announces that in two weeks you’ll be moving to Vienna, Austria…forever. How would you react? Although you’ve seen pictures of this beautiful city, you know very little about it. Because of your limited knowledge, you’d probably try to find out everything you can about Vienna before you left. What language is spoken? What’s the temperature like?What clothes are most appropriate?
You’d want to obtain or update your passport, secure any other necessary travel documents, and purchase your airline tickets. You’d have to decide what items you want to move with you and which ones to leave behind. You’d arrange to sell your house here and purchase a new one over there. You’d want to exchange your dollars for the proper currency.
But it would be unimaginable to do nothing and simply adopt the “I’ll go with the flow” philosophy. Sure, you might be able to rationalize your lack of preparation with thoughts such as:
• “Maybe at the last moment,circumstances will change and I won’t have to go.”
• “I’ll wait until I get there to see what it’s really like.”
• “I doubt Vienna is any different from where I live now.”
Failing to prepare for your journey would be unwise and could result in some disastrous consequences. If you know you’re going to make a long trip, you certainly want to be ready for it.
Whether you realize it or not, you will one day take the journey of a lifetime to a foreign land you’ve never seen. Although your departure time is unknown to you, the hour is already fixed on God’s calendar. At a moment known only to Him, you’ll leave everything you own and everyone you know, and you’ll stand alone before God.He will decide your eternal destiny: heaven or hell. If you wait until that moment to prepare for the journey, you’ll have waited too long.The preparations you make in this life will determine how you spend the next one.
Admittedly, this is a sobering thought for anyone, but especially when we’re reminded of our mortality. Last year I turned fifty. This milestone event in my life wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was worse! Don’t misunderstand. I enjoyed all the attention from family, friends, and church members. My congregation held a huge birthday party for me, complete with skits about their aging pastor.Diapers andMetamucil were among the most frequent gifts. It was all great fun.
But after the celebration ended and the humorous cards had been read and discarded, I was left with this stark realization: Without any doubt, I have more years behind me than in front of me. Sometime in the next twenty to thirty years, I’ll meet the invisible God about whom I’ve taught and with whom I’ve sporadically communicated.
And when that moment arrives, all of my theological speculations will be meaningless. I’ll see God as He really is. The only thing that will matter is whether or not my preparation for eternity has been adequate.
Realizing how little time I have left before my inevitable departure has led me to ask myself the simple question, What does God really want from me? In my mind, that question has moved from being theoretical to critical.
The stakes are too high for me to get it wrong. It’s really the only question that matters. In my twenties and thirties, I thought about this question occasionally, but now I awaken in the middle of the night wondering, What must I do to please God?
I can already hear some of you shouting back the stock answer: “Robert, you of all people should know that there is nothing you can do to please God. Just trust in Christ as your Savior, and everything will be okay.” I’ve preached that message for years, and I still believe it—to an extent. But let’s be honest.When you look at the whole of Scripture, can you honestly say that the only thing God wants from us is a willingness to accept our free ticket to heaven? Again, the stakes are too high for us to be wrong.
At the outset, let me affirm that I definitely believe that salvation from God’s eternal judgment comes through faith alone in Jesus Christ. We can do nothing to merit God’s forgiveness. “For by grace you have been saved through faith…not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). Those words are more than just an evangelical mantra; they are the bedrock of the Christian faith.
However, an honest search of Scripture reveals that God is interested in more than our justification—our right standing before Him, secured by Christ’s death and guaranteeing our entrance into heaven. How do I know that? Consider Jesus’s exchange with an attorney who might have been experiencing his own midlife crisis. Perhaps on the morning after his fiftieth birthday, he saw a crowd standing around Jesus and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to speak with the rabbi who was gaining renown throughout Israel. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25).
Whenever I’ve taught on this particular passage, I’ve always claimed that this was an insincere question from someone trying to trap Jesus into contradicting the teaching of the Pharisees. After all, Luke emphasized that the question was meant to “put Him to the test” (verse 25). Maybe the lawyer was fulfilling his assignment from the Pharisees to trick the Lord and destroy His credibility.
Or maybe this lawyer—feeling the signs of his own mortality— thought he might do his assigned job and, at the same time, seek the answer to a question that kept him awake at nights. Regardless of the lawyer’s motivation, notice Jesus’s answer. He affirms what the lawyer already knows to be true. Interested in eternal life? Then:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and will all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. (verse 10:27)
What’s the essence of a right relationship with God? What does our Creator desire from us more than anything else? A heart fully devoted to Him and a heart that loves other people as much as we love ourselves. Simple. Not easy, but simple.
We’ve all have heard our share of fallen-preacher stories, but one that came across my desk recently takes the cake. A prominent church in our denomination had been searching for a pastor for three years. After an exhaustive hunt, the pulpit committee proudly presented the candidate to the church.The first few weeks, the new pastor wowed the congregation with his flamboyant oratorical skills. The crowds began to build almost instantly.
However, a month after arriving at his church, the new pastor submitted a one-paragraph resignation.The reason? A local newspaper had uncovered the truth about this man. His résumé was filled with bogus degrees. Not only that, he’d reportedly embezzled nearly $200,000 from a previous church. And the IRS had been after him as well. When confronted about the negligence in the pulpit committee’s research, one member responded, “We were swayed by his unusual ability to communicate the gospel.”
Communicate the gospel? What gospel? The gospel that says you can receive your “get out of hell free” card and then live however you choose?
The gospel that teaches you can be forgiven by Jesus without ever following Jesus?
The stunned members of this church were probably left asking, “How could such a thing happen?”
Perhaps DallasWillard has the answer:
A carefully cultivated heart will, assisted by the grace of God, foresee, forestall, or transform most of the painful situations before which others stand like helpless children saying “Why?”…
Accordingly, the greatest need you and I have—the greatest need of collective humanity—is renovation of our heart. That spiritual place within from which outlook, choices, and actions come has been formed by a world away from God. Now it must be transformed. The essence of the gospel is a changed life that comes from a transformed heart. The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Unfortunately, too many of us come to the cross of Jesus Christ “just as I am,” we receive our pardon from hell, and we leave just as we were. Although the statement has become almost trite, it’s still true that no measurable differences exist between the lifestyles of believers and unbelievers. We commit adultery and get divorced at the same rate non-Christians do. We inflate our résumés.We become slaves to various addictions such as prescription drugs and pornography.
I recently received an urgent call from a member of our congregation. His addiction to alcohol and pornography had led to the breakup of his marriage a few hours earlier, and now he was driving himself to a rehabilitation center in another city. He was calling not only to ask for my prayers but to apologize for having to leave his place of service in our church.
“Pastor, it was so exciting to be part of a ministry with a worldwide impact, butmy heart was dying on the inside.”He went on to compliment the “wonderful teaching” that he said he had heard each week, but frankly his words seemed a little hollow to me.
No matter how orthodox my messages were, they apparently hadn’t penetrated his heart. I thought about the plaque one pastor placed on the inside of his pulpit. Every time he stood to preach, he read, “What in the world are you doing to these people?”
I’m asking myself that question a lot these days. What message am I communicating to the people under my spiritual care about their eternal destinies? Is some flaw in my teaching responsible for the lack of measurable change in the lives of my congregants? Is it possible that I’ve gotten it wrong all these years and have completely missed what God really requires of me? Am I going to be surprised when I stand before God one day and hear His evaluation of my life?
I assume you were attracted to this book because you sincerely want to “get it right” when it comes to your relationship with God. You may or may not have yet crossed the midlife milestone, but something inside you yearns to cut through the clutter of Christianity and discover what God really wants from you and for you. Face it. Christianity has become unbelievably complicated by secondary issues.
One of my recently acquired addictions is reading Christian blogs. A newspaper interviewer asked me recently if I blogged, and I sanctimoniously responded, “No, I’m too busy trying to share God’s Word rather than my musings about life.”
But my schedule doesn’t keep me from reading the musings of others. Right now some of these blogs are filled with wranglings over theological issues.
Reading these back-and-forth exchanges, you’d think that the ability to precisely parse the correct answers to these issues is what the Christian faith is all about. I like what one person wrote after someone suggested a laborious rewording of a particular statement of doctrine: “It seems to me that our personal relationship with Christ should be more enjoyable than doing our taxes.”
Again, don’t misunderstand. I appreciate the importance of correct theology. But do we really think when we get to heaven, God will judge us according to our ability to properly articulate the relationship between His sovereignty and our responsibility? At the judgment seat of Christ, will the Lord distribute blue books to each of us and ask us to diagram the end times?
For the less theologically inclined, the essence of Christianity may be embracing the right cultural causes. After all, they remind us, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). Some popular causes we’re encouraged to champion include the elimination of poverty in third-world countries; the fight against same-sex marriages; and opposition to abortion, stem-cell research, and human cloning. Again, all worthy causes, to be sure. But as you read the New Testament—written during one of the most morally decadent periods in human history—can you honestly surmise that what God wants most from us is to become cultural warriors?
Are these theological points and cultural matters really the issues about which God is most concerned? Is He waiting breathlessly in heaven and hoping against hope that we’re able to formulate a doctrinal statement that explains Him in human terms or to eradicate every social evil on the planet?
The contemporary landscape of Christianity today reminds me of Jesus’s admonition to Martha in Luke 10: Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one. (verses 41–42)
The problem with focusing on secondary concerns is that it causes us to miss what God really desires from us. It’s time to cut through the clutter and discover what the Christian faith is really all about.
Hans Hofmann wrote, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”2
The business world increasingly understands the importance of simplicity. Last year both my teenage daughters wanted the same item for Christmas: Apple iPods. After taking out a second mortgage on our home, I was able to purchase these portable musical devices that have sold millions of units. While iPods are expensive, they’re also incredibly simple to operate—just one large button in the center with four touch points controls the entire device. Apple successfully reduced complex technology into a simple operating system that anyone can use.
So what can Christians learn from the corporate world? For starters, perhaps the reason our faith seems to make so little difference in our lives is that we’ve clouded Christianity with secondary concerns and missed the core issue. And maybe we’ve become so distracted by so many things that we miss the one thing God is most interested in.
The Pharisees had the unusual gift of complicating the simple. They formulated 613 regulations for living. But, as we saw earlier, Jesus reduced these hundreds of laws into two simple principles: love God with all your heart, and love others as yourself.
“Wait a minute, Lord! Aren’t You forgetting a few things?What about abstaining from immorality, setting aside anger, forgiving those who wrong us, being a good steward of the earth’s resources, and the myriad other commands in Scripture? Are You saying You don’t care about any of this?”
Of course not. God is concerned about those areas of our lives, and many more. Yet God understands that the basic issue in life is the condition of our heart. Unless our heart is right, nothing else can be right. The writer of Proverbs advised
Watch over your heart with all diligence,
For from it flow the springs of life. (4:23)
Think about it. Every issue you confront is related to the condition of your heart:
• Whether you continue to be paralyzed by fear over that potential disaster looming on the horizon depends on whether you have a fearful heart or a trusting heart.
• Whether you allow anger to govern your life is determined by whether you have developed a bitter heart or a forgiving heart.
• Whether you allow money to consume your thoughts depends on whether you have a greedy heart or a content heart.
• Whether you ultimately fall into the trap of immorality is determined by whether you have an adulterous heart or a pure heart.
Christians tend to get it backward when it comes to our relationship with God.We try to modify our behavior without ever doing anything to transform our hearts, where our behavior originates.We join accountability groups to break our addictions. We cut up our charge cards in an attempt to control our spending. And we medicate ourselves to relieve our anxiety. But we still find it impossible to experience victory over pornography, greed, or fear. Why? Because we haven’t dealt with the heart of the issue—our heart.
On a Christmas Eve afternoon a few years ago, I was showering, getting ready for our church’s annual candlelight service. While I was standing in the stall, a very offensive smell began to suffocate me. Although I’d waited until the afternoon to shower, I quickly realized that I couldn’t smell that bad! I looked down and saw the source of the problem. I won’t go into the gross details, but all kinds of unspeakable things started gurgling up fromthe shower drain, over the edge of the shower, and onto the bathroom tile. Merry Christmas!
I quickly leaped out of the shower and yelled for my wife, and we began a serious mop-up operation.Once the floor was clean, I used my vast knowledge of plumbing to fix the problem. Reaching under the bathroom sink, I retrieved a bottle of Drano, poured it down the shower drain, and then turned on the water as the directions dictated. And up—and out—it all came again.
Fortunately, we found a plumber willing to pay a visit on Christmas Eve. He quickly surmised that the problem was not in the drain, but instead could be traced to the sewage line. Some aggressive underground tree roots had clogged the lines and caused the backup of refuse. Only by dealing with the root problem could we be free of the resulting mess.
Every day, you and I have offensive thoughts, attitudes, and actions that flow from our hearts. When even we are offended by the resulting stench, how must God react?
What can we do about the refuse in our lives? We can spend our time in futile mop-up operations, or we can get to the root of all of our problems: our heart. “Watch over your heart with all diligence.” Greed, anger, adultery, addiction, and a thousand other vices aren’t our real problem. They’re just symptoms of the real problem: a heart that hasn’t been properly guarded and cultivated so that it can love God and others fully.
What can we do about the condition of our hearts? More than you might think. Together, we’ll discover how we can cooperate with God to transform our hearts—and, as a result, our entire lives.
That’s what God really wants from you—and for you.