Book Excerpt: “An Invitation to Live in God’s Love” (Sep-Dec 2006)

By Matt Dabbs

by Earl Lavender and Gary Holloway
September – December 2006

New Wineskins presents an excerpt from the book from Leafwood Publishers, Living God’s Love: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality by Earl Lavender and Gary Holloway.

INTIMACY WITH GOD AND OTHER LOVED ONES

God invites us into genuine relationship with him. As we fall in love with him, he allows no rivals, desiring an exclusive relationship with him. However, although we should have no other gods, our relationship with God is not an individual, private relationship. God invites us into his very life, which itself is relational. Father, Son, and Spirit are a unity of love. That life of love pervades all our relationships. Falling in love with God always means falling in love with people.

The Blessing of a Loving Community

As we live out our invitation to fall deeply in love with God, we accept his gift of community. God creates a true community of believers who die to themselves and begin to lose their fallen ideas of possessiveness. They give all for the good of the entire group. They want to be together, to eat together, and to praise God together. They devote themselves to prayer and to the apostle’s teaching. God expresses his love by their love for one another and for all, and so they joyfully grow (Acts 2:42-46).

This is a wonderful picture of what the church should be. People cut to the heart by their own sinfulness, repenting and dying to self, receiving the Holy Spirit, and becoming members of a true community of faith in God. In light of all that we have studied in this book, it is essential that we understand the place and purpose of the church in God’s plan. Too often, church has been a way of avoiding a deep, personal, and intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ, instead of encouraging such a relationship.

Closer - Intimacy With GodGenerally, church membership is understood as some form of “meeting and agreeing with doctrinal requirements” and remaining faithful to those. Usually, the central focus of such teachings has to do with what happens in the weekly worship assembly of that church. Sadly, at times, a personal relationship with God is not required or even encouraged. The church becomes an institution defined by its rules and practices.

Instead, as we consider the church from the prospective of God’s generous love for us, a different picture emerges. God has created us to have a meaningful relationship with him. Thus, church is no longer an activity to meet the requirements of our religious needs. It is our very reason for being. This doesn’t mean we have to be involved in “church work” all the time in order to live a meaningful life. Instead, “church” is the body of Christ of which we are always a part. Our very life depends on the spiritual nourishment we receive from participating in the life-giving blood of the body.

We must avoid the dangers of a private spirituality outside of the context of community. Such “spirituality” ultimately makes one less useful to God. The proper exercise of the spiritual disciplines will always lead us to a deeper participation in community, not to a spiritual elitism.

We are each members of the same body, working under the direction of the head, Jesus himself. Ephesians 4:12-16 provides a complete picture of the church in action. Christ gave gifts of leadership in order to equip the individual members of the body for works of service. Every member is to come to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ, so false teachings do not destabilize us. Instead, we live the truth to grow up into him who is the head, Christ Jesus. This growth results in true community, because every part is supplying nourishment by working according to its purpose. A growing body builds itself up in love. Love for God and love for one another are the identifying marks of an authentic community of faith.

For Paul, this was not some dreamy idealistic picture. He expected the church to function this way. If we are to recover the Christian community as an expression of God’s love, we must turn away from today’s tendencies to minimize our participation in community, and instead find ways of making such a sharing of life indispensable. This discussion is crucial, if we are to avoid the hyper-individualism of our culture. We cannot be authentic disciples outside of a genuine and loving community.

Community is an intrinsic part of God’s loving plan for our lives. It is a wonderful gift from God to incite us, to spur us, to lead us to his feast. Community is where we test our growing love for the Father. We express our love for him by loving those who join us on our journey of faith (1 John 4:19-21). Consequently, we must not neglect attending assemblies (Hebrews 10:25). We all need the encouragement to live a life of faithful goodness, all the more as the day of Christ’s return is approaching.

As we become authentic disciples of Jesus, professing our love for him above all others, we become a part of a loving community of selfless, God-glorifying people who form a functioning body. Each member has a purpose in that body, leading to deeper nourishment by the Spirit. As each part participates in the body through ministry to others, the entire body grows in maturity and love. The final test of authentic Christian community is love for one another (Ephesians 4:16).

In the recovery of authentic community we will find blessings that many contemporary Christians have lost. These blessings provide indispensable assistance in personal spiritual growth. They are the key to inciting authentic and dynamic growth in churches. True growth does not occur through increasing the numbers attending our services. It occurs through the personal spiritual growth of individual members within the context of genuine, loving community. Let us consider a few of these blessings of authentic community: worship, discernment, spiritual friendship, hospitality, and service.

A Worshiping Community

There should be no greater joy in the life of a believer than coming into the presence of God in the assembly of fellow believers. Of course, we are always in the presence of God. But in the history of God’s people, there have always been special times to focus intentionally on giving God his worth, praising him for who he is, adoring him for what he has done, and anticipating what he is about to do. In those times, we are particularly aware of his presence and love.

The assemblies discussed in the New Testament reflect a joyful gathering for praising God for the blessings received through Christ Jesus. Trying to figure out exactly the right formula that would satisfy God is to miss the point of the assembly. He is not a God who needs us (Psalm 50), but he is a God who wants us. We need him! We need the worship assembly in order to remember that life is not about us. We come before him with the sacrifice of our lives and renew our covenant to live for his glory. So we lift our hearts in song and prayer, we study his written truths, we dine at his spiritual feast. We remember his magnificent works. We rejoice in our certain place at his eternal feast. Our lives are changed. And God delights in the submissive, worshipful heart.

Once at the end of a tiring day, my first grader peeked around the corner. It was past bedtime, but I could tell he wanted to tell me something, so I signaled him to come and sit in my lap. He placed his head against my chest and tenderly placed his hands in mine. “Dad,” he said, “I just want you to know I understand what you are going through. Going to school all day is really tiring and hard! I am proud of you and I love you!” He gave me a kiss, smiled, and ran to bed. I can’t tell you how different I felt because of his demonstration of affection and love. I was no longer tired.

Is that how the Father feels when we submit to him and place our lives in his care? I am not suggesting the eternal Father tires, but I do know he desires our love. I believe that if we would see worship as an opportunity to express sincere love to our loving Father, in the community of others who love him, our assemblies would always be life changing. God has always intended for worship to be relational, not rote religious ritual.

In the Corinthian assemblies, each believer had a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, or a tongue (likely a message in a foreign language that would need translation). Paul suggested they control this excitement so that it could be edifying and meaningful to everyone (1 Corinthians 14:26). Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be a part of an assembly where we are so excited about our growth in the Lord during the week that we all want to share something? Note that Paul’s response was not so much about the proper order or parts of worship, but results. Worship should be orderly so that all would be built up and encouraged.

Paul is attempting to lead the church away from activities that promote individual spirituality but do not build community. He is concerned that unbelievers would see all of the confusion caused by tongues and think the believers were crazy. Instead, if unbelievers heard teachings that were clearly from God, which in turn were deeply experienced in the lives of the believers (Paul refers to this as prophecy), they would be convicted. They would fall on their knees and say, “God is really among you.” These assemblies experienced a true sharing of life-convicting truths from the Spirit of God. This sincere desire to be transformed by God had a tremendous impact on the lives of nonbelievers.

I have seen this dynamic at work. On Sunday evenings, I host a house church. As we discuss Scripture together, we make applicable life lessons. The members are confessional in their approach to Scripture. One night, a friend was present who had little or no belief. But he was deeply moved by the willingness to confess sins and by the earnest seeking for truth. When we later participated in the Lord’s Supper together, we prayed for one another concerning specific sins that had disrupted our kingdom walk during that past week. God opened the heart of this man. He asked for prayers as well.

Paul spoke of this dynamic. There is always the danger of confusion and self-focus in the assembly of believers, and Paul’s solution was to make sure that all was for the spiritual strengthening of the church and the glory of God. This focus moved even unbelievers.

The community comes together in worship to meet at the table of God, to be shaped by his word, to be fed by his Spirit, and to remember what God has done in order for us to be like Jesus in our daily work and activities. The actions of community worship are touch points of God’s story of redemption. They are not actions that somehow fulfill requirements of worship; they are participative reminders of who we are. We lift our voices in song, joining the tens of thousands of angels in worship around God’s throne now. We pray in community because of our intimate relationship with God, seeking his guidance in our lives. We gather at his table to be fed and led, remembering our story of deliverance, and anticipating the eternal feast in God’s presence. We listen to teachings from God’s word so that we might be formed and transformed by what is true. We give, not out of obligation, but because it allows us to participate in God’s giving nature.

Rather than asking specific questions about actions and forms of worship, the better questions would be, “Do our worship assemblies allow God to change lives through authentic, life-challenging messages from his word?” Or, “Are we earnestly praying together, expressing our willingness to submit to God, and listening for his purpose for our lives? Are we singing songs of encouragement and praise? Are we dining at God’s table? Are we learning to love him more? Are we, in ever-increasing measure, surrendering all of our life to him in worship?” These are the reasons we come together. We encourage one another to live in the real story of God’s purposes rather than the temporary story of the material world.

Here is a personal challenge. I have learned that I can thoroughly enjoy and benefit from whatever assembly of worship in which I participate. I can choose to deepen my understanding of God’s love even when the sermon is less than challenging. I can praise God with the very depths of my soul even when the songs are not the ones I would choose. If I prepare my mind for worship, if I ready my heart for an encounter with God in the midst of his people in that place, I am changed. A true, worshipful heart does not need a certain kind of preaching, a certain kind of song, or a certain dynamic of fellowship to have a meaningful experience of worship. All that is needed is an open heart and a community of believers seeking to please God in what they do.

I am not suggesting we shouldn’t try to join a group with similar ideas of meaningful worship. I am just reminding us that worship is not about meeting our needs. It is about communing with God in the assembly of fellow believers. It is about dining at his table. It is about learning to love him more. Approaching the assembly of the saints with this viewpoint allows us to see that the spiritual food is always good, whether it is exactly what we would order or not.

Spiritual Friendship and Mentoring

“There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24). Another of God’s wonderful blessings is that of spiritual friendship. Many have returned to the ancient practice of “spiritual directors” and “spiritual mentors.” We all have teachers. We have individuals who deeply affect us, whether we want to admit it or not. Our ultimate mentor, of course, is Jesus Christ. But he helps us on our spiritual journey through individuals we trust who clearly manifest the presence of the Spirit of God.

Mentoring refers to the teaching of life skills through embodying the principles that are taught. Another word we could use is discipling. Some would suggest a difference, noting that discipleship deals with spiritual training and instruction while mentoring deals more with initiation and deepening in life skills. But there should be no dichotomy between the spiritual and secular realms. We are never outside of the interest and concern of God. I think our problem is that we have limited our view of discipleship. In discipling or mentoring, we walk through life with another so they can embody the skills and wisdom that we hold. And we hold those skills because we have learned at the feet and the side of Jesus, the ultimate teacher and mentor.

Note the shift from having a mentor to being a mentor. This is the beauty of true spiritual friendship. As you sit at the feet of one who truly exemplifies Christ for you, you become a mentor to someone who will sit at your feet. They in turn, will mentor another.
The greatest mentor invites us to be joined at the neck (take his yoke on us) and learn from him. The wonderful thing about Jesus is that all he teaches us he embodied. If we are going to continue to teach the life skills Jesus came to bring us, we need mentors, spiritual friends who embody truth as Jesus did. We then need to mentor others. In this way, we pass on the great story of the love of God.

Closer - Intimacy With God

Hospitality and Service

Hospitality has become the lost fruit of the Christian life. We have so centered our lives on our vocations and families that we seldom open our doors to anyone. Many families, much less strangers, no longer sit together for meals. We desperately need to recover the Christian graces of hospitality and service.

We truly worship God by showing hospitality to strangers, “for by so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Hebrews 13:15-16). A life of intentional praise will take seriously the importance of hospitality and service of every kind.

Jesus constantly spoke of table behavior, encouraging us to get out of the habit of only inviting good friends and relatives to our table. He calls us to invite those who have no way of repaying us (Luke 14:12-14). In this way, we demonstrate our understanding of the nature of God’s gracious invitation to us. None of us have anything God needs, yet he graciously invites us to his table. Will his grace leave us unchanged? We need to practice the discipline of intentional hospitality and open our table as God has opened his.

There is no greater example of serving than the life-changing story told in John 13. Jesus wanted more than anything else for his disciples to know the essence of his coming. He knew his time was short, he had come from the Father, and he was about to die. He took all the power of the heavens and demonstrated it in a shocking way. He took off his robe, humbled himself to the lowest of deeds, and washed his disciples’ feet.

When he finished his surprising deed, he wanted to make sure all of us who call ourselves his disciples understood the nature of his action. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:12b-17).

If God so loved us that he sent his Son to show us the way to kingdom life, we must not miss this profound truth. We show our love for God through our willing service to others. Unless we think we are greater than our Master, our Mentor, we need to rejoice in our calling to serve all whom we encounter.

So much more could be said about demonstrating the love of God and enjoying the love of God in community. We must not miss the point that falling in love with God means learning to love others. We willingly give our lives to our brothers and sisters and to strangers in hospitality and service, and we find the true blessings of Christian community in worship and spiritual relationships. This is how the world will know we are followers of Jesus, by the love we have for one another (John 13:35).New Wineskins

Earl LavenderGary HollowayGary Holloway teaches Spiritual Formation and Earl Lavender is director of missions at Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee. See their book Living in God’s Love at the ZOE Life Store and more from this book, “An Invitation to Live in God’s Love” in our Spiritual Formation issue. You may also wish to read the Gary Holloway article on [Missional Church]. E-mail Gary at [gary.holloway@lipscomb.edu] and Earl at [earl.lavender@lipscomb.edu].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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