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A Measure of Love: On Christmas Eve (at 1 AM) in the Morning

christmas-1812692__340.jpgWhom God loves, he loves to the end:

And not to their end, and to their death

But to his end.

And his end is that he might love them more.

John Donne

Mom! Oh mom, oh mom, oh mom, my 13 year-old moaned. My stomach hurts so much. Please come. 

I wished he’d called for Papa instead. Because Mama was nestled and snuggled in bed. The heat was set low and she didn’t want to go.

After a week of short nights, this, I’d hoped, would be her night for a long winter’s nap.

Love Rolls Out of Bed

Mom, please come, he cried again.

I rolled over. It was 1:04. I’d been with him at 9 and 10 and checked in again with meds at 11. Then to bed and sugarplums.

Coming, I called with a sigh.

“So this is Christmas,” I thought as I lay in the dark, groping about for glasses and socks.

I forced myself out of my snuggly, warm bed and shivering, stumbled my way toward the groans. Then halfway down the hall, it hit me.

That this IS Christmas. That this might actually be closer to the “real meaning of Christmas” than cozy and comfy and Silent Night by candlelight.

That, really, Christmas is more like leaving the warmth to show love in the cold.

This is love come down.

Love Came Down At Christmas

The creed says, “For us and for our salvation he came down.” Paul put it like this to the Philippians,

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself to death, even death on a cross.

I left my warm bed to care for my sick, pitiful child. The Son left the glories of heaven at his Father’s side- the bosom of the Father some translations say- to care for his sin-sick children.

Choosing discomfort to serve another: this is one measure of love.

A Measure of Love

Comfort is overrated. And when it comes to love comfort might not rate at all. In fact, our own discomfort might be a much more accurate indicator of our love for others.

When I weigh my love on this measure, I’m not very loving. Honestly, if Sam’s moans had not been so loud, I might have ignored them. Because I’m a master of excuses for staying in my comfort zones: I deserve this sleep. Jim can go. I warned this son about all that soda and candy and cake.

But God loves us too much to leave us as we are. He calls us to deny ourselves and prefer others and gives us the grace to do it. Christ gives us victory over our selfish, comfort-loving hearts.

We’re more than conquerors through him who loved us and more than conquerors don’t stay stuck in comfort zones. They step into discomfort for love’s sake.

They move into cold driveways and hard conversations.

Discomfort For Love’s Sake

Mom, will you come out and play PIG with me? Please? 

That from the 11 year-old who invited me out for a game of PIG in the driveway. Who called me out of the a cozy house on a 29° day.

Sure Gabe, I’ll come. This time, love won.

It happened again when love pushed me to talk to a relative to whom talking didn’t come naturally.

So Mike, how is it going with work?  I asked. It wasn’t easy, but it was good.

By the measure of choosing others’ “interests” over my comfort, my love is low. The fact that these events are memorable at all shows how vast the room for my love to grow.

Think how you would like to become a slug.

Puritan Anthony Burgess marveled too, at “discomfort” the Incarnation must have been for the Son.

He that was in the bosom of His Father- an expressing showing the intimate, close and secret delight and love He had from the Father. How unspeakable is it that He should deprive Himself of the sense of it? To put himself, as it were out of heaven and into hell? This is deeper love than ever we can imagine or conceive: no wonder the apostle calls it “the unsearchable riches of grace.” 

This is deeper love than we mere mortals who dread to get out of bed in the cold middle of the night can imagine. The Son left the warmth of the heavenly Father for our sakes.

For our sake, Love left heaven for sick, cold earth. This is unsearchably rich grace.

C.S. Lewis made the comparison, too, in more graphic terms than Burgess.

The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. 

Yes, real love is humble and comes down and goes out into the cold. Out of warm beds and warm homes and comfortable conversation zones.

How Love Came Down

Love came out of heaven’s bright glory and was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, because there was no place…in the inn. 

My Bible footnote on Luke 2:7 says that Christ could have been born in a stable or cave, but that “mangers were often outdoors, so it’s possible that Jesus was born in the open air.”

Open air or stable or cave- they all sound uncomfortable and cold.

But that is how Love came down.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 

1 John 4:9-11

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When Christians Aren’t Nice: Drive On, Do What You Can

I wish I could like that woman, he said, shaking his head. But all her whining and worrying sure make it hard. Her sky is always falling.

I knew what my husband meant. Mrs. Olson was definitely an EGR.


Old Mr. Jones was an Extra-Grace-Required too. He was a crusty carmudgeon whose scowl could scare any smile away. And I do mean any. I’d watched bright chubby cheek toddler smiles grow cold and plenty of friendly greeter smiles disappear from his frosty frowns.


And he, and she, are Christians.


And let’s not forget one Mrs. Wallace. I know her inside and out. No one wants to be near her when her service gets showy and and her (little) intellect gets impatient or when her helping turns harsh and her eager zeal interrupts. 


Tough nut, that Wallace. She’s clearly got her faults.


And those faults, I happen to know, come despite the fact she listens to a half-dozen sermons and memorizes a handful of verses each week and leads a ladies’ life group and prays before she even gets out of bed each morning. Her lapses happen after all that. 


Those three, not always so nice Christians, raise two big questions. One is reasonable. The other one is not.


The right question first.

Shouldn’t all Christians be obviously better, nicer, than they used to be? 

In a word, YES!


The Bible- Jesus and John and Paul-repeatedly affirm: A tree is known by its fruit, and No one born of God makes a practice of sinning. Transformed from glory to glory, renewed in the spirit of our minds, we make no provision for the flesh. We are to grow up in every way into him who his the head.

So, yes. It is fair to assume and expect every single believer will be kinder and more patient and more loving than he or she would be without Christ. Every born-again person becomes better. Better than who he or she would have been.


But what about Mr. Jones and Mrs. Olson and Wallace? What about the ones who are ornery and edgy and difficult and often EGR? What about them? Why is it your faithless neighbor seems so much nicer than they are? 

Which brings us to the not-so-fair question:

Shouldn’t all Christians be obviously nicer than all non-Christians?

Not necessarily.


In a chapter near the end of his masterwork, Mere Christianity, you’ll find a chapter called, “Nice People or New Men.” Lewis spends most of that chapter called explaining that it is, in fact, unreasonableto expect that Christians will always be obviously nicer than non-Christians.


Only God knows the raw material. Only he knows the mass of nerves and hurts and natural temperament and early environment and everything else that made EGR’s what they are. 


Lewis explains how,

[G]od has allowed natural causes, working in a world spoiled by centuries of sin, to produce in Miss Bates the narrow mind and jangled nerves which account for most of her nastiness. He intends, in His own good time, to set that part of her right…  

We must, therefore, not be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty. There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones

But it is reasonable, he says, is to expect that Christ in his life will improve the old man. Jones will be more kind and Olson more trusting and Wallace more gentle, than each of them would naturally be.


If Christianity is true, Lewis explains, you can expect both that a) any Christian will be nicer than the same person if he were not a Christian, and b) that any man who becomes a Christian will be nicer than he was before. 


Lewis doesn’t leave it at that, though. He offers up a warning. 

A Warning For Nice People

You can’t expect God to look at Mrs. Olson (or nice Miss Bates) exactly the way we do, he says. If you’re naturally one of the nice ones, take heed. 

…If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. “Why drag God into it?” you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness.

There is either a warning or an encouragement here for every one of us. If you are a nice person-if virtue comes easily to you beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. 

And one of the expectations for nice folks is that they bear with the weak. 

A Command For Us All

Therefore as a prisoner for the Lord, I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. Ephesians 4:1-3

Bearing with, or forbearing, means “to hold oneself back.” It means holding back your annoyance at Mrs. Olson and not telling off old Mr. Jones. It means listening to her worries and smiling through his frown. It means resisting the urge to get angry at one friend’s forgetfulness or irritated by another’s compulsiveness. 

Matthew Henry said it means, 

[B]earing their infirmities out of a principle of love, and so as not to cease to love them on the account of these. The best Christians have need to bear one with another, and to make the best one of another, to provoke one another’s graces and not their passions. 

We all have need to bear with one another. The frets and rubs are beneficial. Brushing shoulders with EGR’s gives us a chance to grow in love.

For love bears all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).  

We all know them. Look in a mirror if you don’t. We bear and forbear and if we cannot like them, we love them still. Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ

And if you look in the mirror and you see one, Lewis has one more word for you.

Keep Driving

But our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to subject all things to Himself, will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body. Philippians 3:20-21

Lewis concludes, 

If you are a poor creature-poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels…nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends-do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can.

One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all-not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school.  (Mere Christianity, Nice People or New Men)

You’ve been praying and reading and worshipping and still you worry and hand out harsh words to the kids. Take heart. He knows our frame. God knows our wretched machines go and grow in fits and starts. 


God knows what hard things happened early in life to nervous Mrs. Olson. He knows that her compulsions and worries used to lock her up in her house. He knows old Mr. Jones, whose frowns can freeze the sunniest smiles. He came to faith late and now his furrowed brow eases out his violent old raging ways.


And He knows how much more harsh and impatient and puffed-up that Mrs. Wallace would be without God and all his means of grace. Just imagine me without all these sermons and studies fellowship and all that Scripture memory. 


He knit me. He formed me. He knows the car I drive.


He knows you too. So press on and don’t despair, no matter the car you drive. 

Do what you can. Keep on.

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.  

Romans 14:4

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More Than Conquerors: Not Somehow, But Victoriously

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Romans 8:37

The greatest truths don’t always feel true. Sometimes “more than conquerors” don’t even feel like conquerors.

Sometimes “super-conquerors” feel like losers.

More Than Meets The Eye

In fact, the “more than conquerors” are described one verse earlier as slaughtered sheep, who face death all the day long.

And back-to-back, just like that, slaughtered sheep are more than conquerors.

But that shouldn’t come as a shock to students of the Word. The Bible’s full of that sort of upside down kingdom talk. Because the earth is full of things are not what they seem.

It’s full of firsts who are lasts and lasts who are first and greats who are servants of all.  Full of weak who are strong and poor who are rich and mourners who get up and dance. Of persecuted who bless and wounded who pray and hurt ones who overcome evil with good. Of the hard pressed but not crushed and the fighters for rest and of the sorrowful yet always rejoicing.

The heroes are the saints who, like Mary and Joseph, and Joseph and Moses and maybe you and me- who choose what they did not choose.

Reality for these is far more than what meets the eye. These set their sights on things unseen and are never too old to see.

These are more than conquerors, in all these things.

Not In Spite Of, But Because Of

All means all. In all these things. For me, all these things means decades of longings unfulfilled and repenting of the same things and years peppered with rough scrambled days. In all these things.

What are your all these things?

Whatever they are, they can be your launching pad to spiritual growth. Because of that little preposition in. 

In all these things, we are more than conquerors through him. Not despite them, but because of them.

Do you remember the Old Testament Abigail? Abigail was “discerning and beautiful, but the her husband Nabal was harsh and badly behaved,” (1 Sam. 25:3).

In her study on Abigail, Nancy DeMoss Wolgumuth posed two questions that pulsate:

What if she was beautiful and discerning not in spite of the harsh and ill-behaved man she had been married to but because of her relationship with him? Was it her difficult circumstances that made her seek to know God and to become God’s woman?

Leading questions, those. No, Paul wrote, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

In all these things. Not in spite of them. In all these things. 

Not Somehow, But Victoriously

We’ve all heard it and most of us have said it:  I’ll get through somehow.

But come now. These aren’t the words of a super-conqueror, are they? Somehow it’ll all turn out.

Somehow?

And we who are in Christ are. We are super-conquerors. Not will be- are.

The word in Greek that is translated “more than conquerors” in Romans 8:37 is only used once in the whole Bible. It’s one compound Greek word that takes two- super conquerors– or three of ours- more than conquerors– to express.

Albert Barnes explains how it is we gain victory in all these things.

That is, they have not power to subdue us; to alienate our love and confidence; to make us lose our faith. We are the victors, not they. Our faith is not destroyed, our love is not diminished, our hope is not blasted.

But it is not simple victory; … it is more than simple triumph; it augments our faith, increases our strength, expands our love to Christ.

In other words, our sufferings become stepping stones on the path to glory when we score off them. When, instead of shipwrecking our faith, they cause our faith and love to grow.

Not somehow, but victoriously. In all these things.

But Not Without A Fight

In, “The Law of Antagonism,” Oswald Chambers explains that super-conqueror status doesn’t come without a fight.

Life without war is impossible either in nature or in grace. The basis of physical, mental, moral, and spiritual life is antagonism. This is the open fact of life.

Health…is maintained only by sufficient vitality on the inside against things on the outside…Things which keep me going when I am alive, disintegrate me when I am dead. If I have enough fighting power, I produce the balance of health.

The same is true of the mental life. If I want to maintain a vigorous mental life, I have to fight, and in that way the mental balance called thought is produced. Morally it is the same… No man is virtuous because he cannot help it; virtue is acquired.

And spiritually it is the same. Jesus said — “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” i.e., everything that is not spiritual makes for my undoing, but — “be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

I have to learn to score off the things that come against me, and in that way produce the balance of holiness; then it becomes a delight to meet opposition.

We learn to cling to him and run the race score of things that come against us. We overcome.

And, in all these things we are super-conquerors through him who loved us.

What Super-Conquerors Know

Super-conquerors don’t just triumph over evil things. We win by trampling- spiritually- on the things that would destroy us.

We score off suffering and sickness and mistreatment and conflict and injury and hardship and loss.

I love how John Piper explains what it is to be a super conquerer.

If you’re a conqueror, your enemies are dead at your feet. And if you’re more than a conquerer, your enemies get up…and serve you. The point is God doesn’t just protect you from all these adversaries, he makes them serve you, which is another way of saying Romans 8:28. The devil’s efforts are turned to work for our good.

This is the super conquerors’ secret: all these things are stepping stones to glory. What the enemy intends for evil, God turns for our good.

We look the worst straight in the eye and fight the faithless sin that would threaten to undo us and, through Christ, we fight for faith and strive to love and so we win the victory.

Through him who loved us. 

Stepping Stones To Glory

Christ was perfected through suffering and so will we be. Super conquerors use the same wounds that could be victim-makers and faith-takers and walk over them- as stepping stones- on the path to glory.

So we rejoice in our sufferings, Paul wrote, because we know that through Christ, these things serve us. They are precisely the means God ordains to grow us up and strengthen our faith.

Because these things-all these hard things– serve us. They pave the way to glory.

But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

1 Corinthians 15:57

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Where Intelligence Is Irrelevant

In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your good pleasure.”  
Luke 10:21

I worshiped at an inner city, self-described “diverse, multi-ethnic church” the other week. I loved every second of it- of the different accents and rhythms and styles and shades.  Which bodes well, since worship times will get even more diverse.

The heavenly worship set will come from a multitude from every tribe, tongue and nation. Every. So bring on diversity.

Including the little girl with Down Syndrome who faced straight right, but sang front center in the children’s choir.

Big On Diversity

We’re big on diversity as we ought to be. But it’s even bigger to God.

I mean, he wants- he will have– a cross section to compose his Son’s Bride, the church. Male and female, Greek and Jew, slave and free- there is no difference. All are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Gender, religious affiliation, and employment status are no barriers to God. His call goes out.

But variety in the God’s Kingdom doesn’t end with those. Church diversity goes beyond sex, age and skin color. For now, at least. it extends even to IQ.

To the end that God has actually hidden his glory from some high IQ’d and worldly wise and revealed it to children. To babes. The Greek in Luke 10:21 is nēpios which, I read, means nursing babies.

Dependent, helpless babies. Little children.

IQ Won’t Bring You To God

This means that, at least when it comes to getting into the Kingdom of God, intelligence is overrated.

Rather than being a prerequisite to knowing God, high IQ might even be a barrier, or  handicap, in coming to Christ. Luke 10:21 (and Matthew 11:25-26 and 1 Cor. 1:26-31) means that no education, worldly wisdom or IQ can bring us to God.

And this truth pleased Jesus the Son because this pleased God the Father. It means that all the glory for our salvation goes to God.  Not a smidge goes to our intelligence. Nobody gets into the kingdom of heaven by reasoning and deducting and inferring his way in.

Little children know they can’t make it alone. Everybody in God’s family knows that they’re needy and helpless.

It’s like those lines from Rock of Ages,

Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace…

And Jesus rejoiced in this and said, I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your good pleasure.

No Matter If You’re Not Clever

Maybe this verse grabbed me so hard last week because I’ve been part of a few conversations lately about wits. About friends who feel pressure to keep up the smart front and match wits with the wise the feeling of inferiority that comes when we compare and feel not as smart.

But the most important wisdom in the world- the only saving knowledge in the wide world- does not come with being clever.

In a sermon on Luke 10:21, C.H. Spurgeon explains how this works:

One poor soul says, “I am not clever. I cannot be saved.” Why not? Why not, when God has chosen the foolish things of this world? I often hear a person say, “But I have not head enough for these things.” You do not need a head so much as you need a heart, for the grace of God works on the heart, first, and on the head, afterwards…If you love Christ and trust in Him, you have all the head that you need for eternal life.

“O,” says one, “but I am a person of such small capacity!” Never mind. “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners” whether they are of large capacity or small capacity. Have you a teachable spirit? Are you willing to believe what the Holy Spirit reveals? To sit at Jesus’ feet and learn of Him? Are you like the babe that…takes, unquestioningly, the nourishment she gives? If that is so, you are of the kind that God has chosen! Come at once to Him.

So what causes Jesus to rejoice greatly? At least in part, it was knowing that when it comes to knowing God, intelligence is irrelevant.

It was pleasing to you, Father, to hide these things from the wise. 

Intelligence Is Irrelevant

This doesn’t mean that thinking clearly and being wise is not important. It is. We are to love the Lord with all our minds. But, as John MacArthur explains,

It’s just that those on their own can’t get there.  A man may be as wise as Solomon. That’s not going to get him to God.  He may be as intelligent as Einstein. That’s not going to get him to God.  Intelligence is neither a way nor a barrier, it’s irrelevant.  Human wisdom is not a way or a barrier, it’s irrelevant.

You can’t know me, unless I reveal something of myself to you and you can’t know God unless he reveals himself to you (Luke 10:22). And thankfully,  he doesn’t reveal himself to us on the basis of our IQ. By wisdom, Paul wrote, the world knew not God.

The natural man does not understand the things of God. God has to open our eyes. He has to reveal himself. And we have to become like children to see. We don’t need high ACT scores or college degrees.

God has favor on those who are broken and contrite and tremble at his word. Revealing himself to these is his good pleasure.

In the Wisdom of God

I’m back in my little church now. And if you measure by variety in accents and skin tones, we’re not terribly diverse. But in other ways, we are.

A little sister in Christ who happens to have autism, worships in the aisle, criss-cross applesauce style. An older brother who loves to tell big-grinned one-liners about Smiles that go on for miles and Normal is just a setting on your dryer listens to the sermon. A middle-aged sister who has a hard time remembering things belts it out with her hands held high.

Here we all are, weak and foolish, not many of noble birth (1 Cor. 1: 26-31), high school drop-outs and college grads. I wouldn’t doubt the IQ spread here would span from 50-150, from profoundly behind to MENSA qualified.

And we’re all one in Christ. We’re united because it pleased God to reveal His Son to us and save us. IQ is irrelevant here.

And that is all wisdom.

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe…God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
1 Corinthians 1:21, 28-29