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Why It's Hard to Love Jesus
By Joseph M. Stowell
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2003 Joseph M. Stowell
All rights reserved.
The Eclipse of Devotion
THE PHARISEE IN ALL OF US
We all have a love language. For some it's touch; for others, it's affirming words or generous acts of kindness. Early in our marriage I learned Martie's love language.
When I got married I believed flowers were love's universal language. So one evening I did the old dozen-roses-behind-my-back, kiss-on-the-cheek routine, fully believing Martie would swoon in my arms. She graciously thanked me, sniffed them, smiled, and took them to the kitchen.
Not exactly the response I had expected. I followed her into the kitchen and asked if the flowers were a disappointment. She said she liked them a lot, but wondered how much money they had cost. I was a seminary student and money was tight. As I recall, the flowers cost more than the monthly rent. Understandably, for Martie, the flowers had only compounded our financial woes. For me they were a message of love.
The flowers didn't connect. My assumptions and Martie's expectations were miles apart. My time and attention make her feel most loved. When I pay close attention to Martie she's convinced how much I value her. Joining her and affirming her in her world says "I love you" in far deeper tones than flowers.
Jesus has a love language. The Bible provides several examples of the authentic love that touches His heart. Scripture also shows many people who thought they loved Him but missed the mark. The compelling story in Luke 7 includes both. See if you can find yourself in the story.
LIVING LIFE LOVELESSLY
Like my misguided attempts to show Martie my love, our goodness, busyness for Christ, and conformity to rules of behavior may not connect with Jesus. Simon the Pharisee would have proudly proclaimed that he loved God. He followed the codes and traditions of the Law and lived a respectable life. He piously viewed the woman's shocking invasion of the dinner party as rude and repulsive. Her sinning way, in his mind, had put her far from the touch and love of God. Yet Jesus endorsed her love. But surprisingly, Simon's approach to pleasing God didn't connect with Christ.
That's the major lesson from Luke's story. It doesn't matter if we think that we love Him. What matters is whether or not Christ feels loved by us.
Simon failed the test. Blinded by false perceptions, he couldn't see how far from God he really lived.
Now that's convicting! I'll be honest; life in the religious limelight is laden with land mines. I struggle every day to keep my focus on Christ. Deep down, I love the approving nods from board members, faculty, and students. After all, they're looking to me for leadership—for a model of genuine faithfulness. But that's a land mine. Seeking the approval of others always leads us away from what matters. Jesus wants my heart. He's most concerned about my relationship to Him.
Anyone who assumes that Christianity is about garnering applause for good behavior has only to read Revelation 2:2-5. It shatters the notion that busyness and behavioral conformity are the same as loving Christ. Through the apostle John, Jesus spoke to the believers at Ephesus, saying, "I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary." What a list of compliments. Sounds like a great bunch of folks—mature, wise, faithful to the truth. I know of countless Christians who'd long to have such a glowing assessment of their lives. But that's not all Christ had to say. He continued, "Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love."
The church at Ephesus had been doing all the right things. And although Jesus acknowledged that, He had a deeper concern. They didn't love Him like they used to love Him. Their passion had been eclipsed by the routine and ritual of good behavior and faithful religious responses. Jesus reproved them because their love for Christ was not their chief priority. Put another way, they did what they did for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps their good behavior was spurred by a sense of religious obligation. Or they may have tried to live up to the expectations of others. Their obedience may have been driven by the fear of consequences. They may have given because they thought they would be blessed in return. And they may have thought it their duty to defend the faith against false prophets. But it wasn't enough.
THE TROUBLE WITH A DUTIFUL LIFE
There is a well-traveled detour on the way to heaven—a worn path that leads to a dead-end street of good works for good works sake.
Oswald Chambers writes:
We consider what we do in the way of Christian work as service, yet Jesus Christ calls service to be what we are to Him, not what we do for Him. Discipleship is based solely on devotion to Jesus Christ.... Today we have substituted doctrinal belief for personal belief, and that is why so many people are devoted to causes and so few are devoted to Jesus Christ.
Christianity is not just about what we are doing; it is first and foremost about what He has done for us. It is not just about what we are becoming; it is about what He has become for us. As a result, all our good works and all our service to Him are not obligations, but rather opportunities for us to express our love and gratitude for all the greatness of His grace toward us. Doing all we do as a response rather than a ritual is the heart of Jesus' love language.
When we obey all the rules and perform dutifully for the world to see, pride creeps in and takes hold. But it is not just pride that snares us. When our Christianity is primarily about duty and doing, we eventually become tired of being good for the sake of being good. Christianity not practiced out of loving gratitude for Christ grows dull and unattentive.
As one observer notes, a believer caught in this trap becomes,
humorless, prudish, constrained in his affections, incapable of enjoying himself, repressed, inhibited, pouting and censorious.
There are hundreds of people like that today: respectable, conventional, good people. They look down their noses at the permissive society; they curl their lip at the decay in moral standards. They think they're good, but they are not; they're simply dull. They think they're being moral, but they are not; they're simply feeling sanctimonious.
Joyless in their hypocrisy, sterile in their respectability, their religion has no more in common with Christianity than a frigid marriage has in common with a real love affair.
Those words sting, but they're true. I recall asking a student at Moody about her boyfriend. She simply said, "He adores me!" I love the response. We have to ask if that is how Christ feels about our love for Him.
True Christianity is always about the One who has loved us and given Himself for us. When we drift from this motivation and begin to be good because we are Christians, we elevate self above the Savior. When that happens, the door swings open to arrogance and self-righteousness. What occurs is an eclipse of devotion.
Simon's pharisaical approach to faith had eclipsed what mattered most—that he be rightly related to Jesus.
THE PHARISEE IN ALL OF US
The Pharisees were a society of pious men zealous for keeping the Law. Their name originates from an Aramaic root word that means "separate and distinct." That separateness marked them in society. They were not only Law keepers but also Law interpreters. They were "good works" police, so to speak.
The Pharisees did not start out as bad guys. They were motivated by a genuine desire to please God. But they deceived themselves into thinking that a human-centered religion would satisfy the divine requirement. That explains their vehement disdain for sinners. Sinners were second only to tax collectors in their judgment. They would never qualify to live among their ranks—they were permanent outcasts from God's society of the redeemed.
That same trap is laid for all of us. The only way to avoid being ensnared is to be aware of the lies that draw us in. There are at least four traps of Pharisaism that threaten our love for Jesus.
1. The better we become, the more impressed we are with ourselves. Jesus noted that the Pharisees enjoyed praying in public and went to great lengths to ensure that people knew they were fasting. They threw their money noisily into large trumpet-shaped depositories at the temple door for the world to see. They were guilty of self-focused devotion.
We are all vulnerable to be snagged in the same trap. After a series of sermons on being a servant, I decided to practice what I preached by pouring coffee for each of the deacons at the church board meeting. As I "served," one of them remarked, "Look, our pastor has a servant's heart!" I loved the sound of that! I poured coffee again at the next meeting, but now for a different reason. In the darkest corners of my heart I hoped people would notice my "servant's heart."
A parent of a student wrote and said how much her daughter was getting out of her experience, and that she appreciated my humility. As I read the letter, that particular part had a nice ring to it. In fact, I kind of enjoy writing about it now!
It is hard to love Jesus when we love ourselves more. As Shakespeare said, "There's the rub!" We start out doing what we do as an act of loving Him and end up loving ourselves.
2. The better we become, the greater distance we place between ourselves and those we consider not as good. The infamous prayer of the Pharisees, "Lord, I thank you that I am not like ...," reflects the proud distance they maintained from the less righteous among them. It never occurred to them that we are all beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. Regardless of how we try to cover ourselves, most of us feel that we really are better than those who "live in sin." But we are not better—not at all. We are forgiven but not better. That sort of high-minded thinking leads us to become sanctimonious, judgmental, uncompassionate, and disinterested in the welfare of unbelievers.
Lisa DePalma is a graduate of Moody. God gave her a burden for the female prostitutes of Chicago. On Friday and Saturday nights she spends time on the streets with a ministry companion telling these sin-laden girls about Christ's liberating love. Always used and never loved, they hear—some of them for the first time—how God has wonderfully loved them in Jesus Christ.
But most of us think of street women as "wasted lives" beyond the pull of God's grace.
But aren't you and I just as hopeless as they are without the love of Christ? Of course we are. That reality should make our souls shudder. Imagine where you might be today if it were not for His grace! Jesus once welcomed you into His family, and He welcomes them too.
3. The better we feel we are becoming, the more godless we may be. The Pharisees became so fond of being good that they kept inventing new traditions and codes to obey. In the process they became stricter than God. In fact, Jesus reproved them for placing spiritual burdens on people that God never intended. Godliness means to be like God. Any addition to or subtraction from who He is, what He is like, and what He requires is a move away from Him. Ungodliness is not always about the really bad people. Sometimes it is about the really good people who are more restrictive than God.
The Pharisees' good intentions led them astray. They took the laws of God and added extra rules for good measure. These were called "fence laws." Since women were viewed as a source of temptation and moral failure, the Pharisees prohibited rabbis from talking to a woman. They could not even walk along the same side of the street as a woman. Eventually, the fence laws came to hold an equal place with God's Laws. There were fence laws about the Sabbath, about purity, and about anything that had to do with righteous living. That's why Jesus was such a menace to the Pharisees. He insisted on tearing down those carefully constructed fences.
Those who lived through the sixties recall the hippie subculture in the United States. That time in American history represents the antithesis of all that believers hold sacred. Morality, purity in marriage, the dignity of the body, and respect for authority were ridiculed. Hippies advocated free love and communal living. Drugs released them from the constraints of authority. Rebellion against all that was proper and "straight" was the theme of the day.
So Christians reacted by enacting their own set of fence laws. Short hair and shaven faces for men became marks of spirituality. Dresses and no denim for women. Strict standards for choir and platform personnel. New rules in college student handbooks. Now, I have no argument with establishing appropriate boundaries. The problem comes when those standards carry equal weight with God's standards. When the hippies were no longer a threat, Christians forgot to tear down the fences.
Many of those fences still stand today. How sad to reduce genuine love for Christ to a set of man-made rules and regulations!
The principles of righteousness never change; however, the applications of righteous principles always remain fluid. The well-meaning Pharisees encumbered God's people with the burdens of extrapolated goodness that distracted them from a true love for God.
4. The better we become, the more we feel God is impressed. Jesus wasn't impressed with the Pharisees' brand of righteousness. The better they had become on the outside, the worse they had become on the inside. That's why Jesus came down so hard on them. They misrepresented Truth.
The same was true of Simon. His externally spit-polished life blinded him to his true condition.
If we're not careful, we too will equate being good with loving Jesus. When we are honest with ourselves we see an awful lot of Simon in our hearts. Jesus is no more impressed with our whitewashed exteriors than He was with the Pharisees'. You may look like you love Him in your neatly pressed, color-coded Sunday attire, but Jesus knows the real story. Sadly, most of us think that if we pray before every meal (even in restaurants), avoid foul language, teach our kids to tell the truth, cancel our cable, and stop smoking, we've sufficiently demonstrated our love for Christ. As good as keeping the real rules is, "rule-keepers" may miss the point of Luke 7. Jesus affirmed the love of the one who owed Him the most—the rejected sinner—not the one who simply kept all the rules.
YOU, TOO, COULD BE A PHARISEE
How do we get into this loveless form of Christianity? Answer: Self-righteousness blinds. Religious routine kills. That's why Simon missed seeing the living God in his presence. Why he piously shunned the woman engaged in genuine worship. Why he responded to Jesus from his world of lists and laws rather than seeing Jesus who was looking for Simon's love.
What would I do if Christ were to threaten the norms and traditions of my sense of true religion? Most Pharisees were both intrigued by and interested in His claims. Simon no doubt wondered to himself if Jesus could really be the Messiah. That is the reason for the Pharisees' suspicion of and uneasiness about Jesus. Their legalistic ways crossed swords with His brand of gracious, accepting love. Jesus never condoned sin. But He also never endorsed the Pharisees' burdensome, human-made system of right living.
His teachings reproved them. He challenged the validity of their traditions. He condemned the pride and hypocrisy that their goodness had fostered. He confronted their love for power and control.
Jesus and the Pharisees were miles apart. Jesus came to prove God loved sinners. The Pharisees believed that sinners should be condemned. They had no sense of the grace, mercy, and love of God for all mankind. And that failure in their theology led them to a barren lovelessness that was stained by an infatuation with themselves and their accomplishments.
A. M. Hunter observes that "the new thing in Christianity is not the doctrine that God saves sinners. No Jew would have denied that. It is the assertion that God loves them and saves them as sinners."
That helps explain why Luke included the story of Simon and the sinning woman. He wanted us to see ourselves somewhere in that scene. It's easy to feel good about ourselves because we have faithfully conformed to what we believe to be are God's ways. It's harder to look at our Christian life from God's perspective.
Granted, you're no Pharisee. I know you desire to serve Christ with an honest and passionate love. More important, God knows that. What I'm advocating is honest reflection about the ways you choose to demonstrate that love for Him and awareness of how quickly we slip from duty to devotion. Are you relying merely on externals to show your love for Christ? Are you ever tempted to think that your goodness is a performance of obligation? Has your goodness become a habit rather than a loving response to grace? Do you believe being good is enough to please God? Do you ever feel a twinge of jealousy toward those more revered than you? Is there hypocrisy or duplicity in your life? Have you ever noticed pride lurking in the shadows of your heart but failed to confront it?
Any "guilty as charged" response to these questions should alert you to the possibility that you've left your first love—you've been co-opted by a system instead of being overwhelmed by the Savior.
Excerpted from Why It's Hard to Love Jesus by Joseph M. Stowell. Copyright © 2003 Joseph M. Stowell. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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