Book Excerpt: “Living in God’s Love (Mar-Apr 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Earl Lavender and Gary Holloway
March – April, 2005

Do you want a deeper relationship with God? A closer walk with Jesus? An inward assurance of the constant presence of the Holy Spirit? Do these statements express the deepest desires of your heart, but you don’t know where to begin? Bible study seems so difficult to do consistently. Your prayers seem repetitive and cold. You’re not satisfied with your spiritual life, but you don’t know where to start to find something better.

This book is for you. It does not offer easy steps, shortcuts, or sure-fire techniques for a deeper spirituality, but it points the way to the path of daily relationship to God. The Bible shows that path, but many of us have not matured beyond our childhood misconceptions of God and our relationship to him. For us and for those young in Christian experience, much of the vocabulary and practices of Christian spirituality are new.

This book is therefore by beginners for beginners. To admit we are beginners in our walk with God is not to deny the reality of the relationship we have enjoyed with him for years. Instead, it is to stand at the threshold of a deeper, fuller path to God. Like Dorothy in Oz, the landscape will seem both familiar and new. We will rediscover what we have known before—Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and service—but in deeper and richer ways. If these ways seem strange–and they seemed strange to us at first–at least give them a chance and an honest try.

But like all relational journeys, the path will bring both joy and struggle. The path we journey through the Spirit, with Jesus, to our home with God is not the yellow-brick road, but the dusty path to Calvary. It is a road that requires self-sacrifice, discipline, and consistency. It is also the way of inexpressible joy, for the God of love travels with us. This is an invitation into the very heart of God.

Learning to travel that road to God is much like learning to jog (see 1 Corinthians 9:24-26; 1 Timothy 4:7-10; Hebrews 12:1-13). We first need motivation—better health, loss of weight, time to be with friends, a picture of what we would like to be. Spiritually we need an image of what God wants us to be. But why do we need to learn how to jog? We have been running all our lives! Because jogging is more intentional, regular, disciplined running. Likewise, we also have been praying all our lives but we need more regular, disciplined prayer.

One does not learn to jog by reading books (although books may help). To learn to run, you must begin to run. It’s the same with spiritual practices. What helps most in jogging is a good coach and helpful running partners. Spiritually, we never run alone. Jesus runs with us through the Holy Spirit, and we run together with fellow believers. Jogging consistently means discipline, running daily even when we do not feel like it. Spiritual practices are also not always fun, but require consistency even when boring and painful. No pain, no gain.

But in jogging and in our journey to God, there is great gain. The path of this journey begins with the God who pursues us in love. That loving God will be our focus throughout this book. Spiritual practices have little value without centering on God. From there the path flows into God’s action in his kingdom and his call to personal relationship. We then discuss listening to God and communicating with him in prayer as ways of strengthening that relationship. This loving relationship with him requires regular practices to help us grow in love. That relationship takes place in community. As we walk with God, we must avoid rivals to his love. Finally, love for God always overflows to genuine love and service to others. This is our journey with God.

We make this journey together. God is always our Father. This book itself is the product of a community of faith. The authors write jointly; so much so that we usually use “I,” not “we,” to refer to ourselves in the book. Others shared helpful insights along the way. Most of all we trust and pray that God has been at work in our writing and will work powerfully in you as you read.

God lives and works in community. That is why this book will be of more value if you study and practice in small groups. There are questions and practices at the end of each chapter for individuals, but also for group work from the beginning of this process. God works through others to draw us to himself. That’s why groups are so important.

But whether you begin by yourself, with a small group, or a larger group or class, the important thing is to begin. God invites you into relationship with him, just as you are. Even if you’re not sure about God, even if you have no religious background, even if you’ve been a faithful churchgoer all your life, God invites you to share his very life, a life richer than you can imagine.

SECTION ONE

LIVING IN GOD’S LOVE
Father, Son, and Spirit invite us into the relationship they share. The story of that relationship is told in the Bible, which is also our story. God calls us to live in that relationship of love, to live a new life in the kingdom of God.

Chapter One: A God Who Loves
Who is God to you right now? What word first pops into your mind when you hear, “God”? How would you picture God?

You might respond that you really don’t picture God at all. “God” might just be a word to you, with little specific content. You might take God for granted. He is a convenient God who helps you when you want him. Or your God may be a distant God who did great things in Bible times and is up there somewhere watching over things, but not active in today’s world, much less in the daily struggles of your life. Perhaps your God is a “religious” God, found in churches, active on Sunday, but far removed from the office during the week. He is an out-of-date God who doesn’t understand contemporary life.

Perhaps you have an angry, demanding God. No matter what you do, you feel his disapproval. You can never be good enough for him, but still you try. Talk of God makes you feel guilty. You don’t love him enough, do enough for him, or care as much about other people as he wants you to.

Or you might be angry at God, thinking he has a lot to answer for. God to you is the tyrant who allows others to abuse you. He can cure cancer, stop war, and feed the hungry, but for some reason he will not. Or maybe he wants to but simply can’t. He’s a nice God, but powerless.

It may be that all of these images of God flow through our hearts at different times. Why bring this up? Isn’t this a book about spirituality? Why begin with talk of God? Must we fully understand God before we are spiritual?

Of course not. But this book is not about generic spirituality, but about relationship to God. We define spirituality as “the mysterious process of God at work in us.” As mystery, we cannot fully explain this process. God cannot be fully explained, but he can be genuinely experienced. And so we ask, who is this God at work in us? What kind of God is he?

An Active God Who Pursues Us in Love
In the Bible, God reveals his true character (that’s why we sometimes refer to Scripture as “special revelation”). God pulls back the thick curtain of our misconceptions to walk boldly onto the stage of history and make himself known. From Genesis to Revelation, the picture of God is consistent. He is a God who loves his creation forever. He created all things out of love. He lovingly molded humans from the ground, breathed life into them, and made them in his image (Genesis 1:27; 2:7).

But we humans soon rejected the love of God, preferring our own desires to his, wanting to be our own gods (Genesis 3:1-7). But even so, God does not reject us. He continues to pursue humanity in love. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, Samuel, David—all are beloved by God.

Yet it is not only the “heroes” of Scripture that God loves. His love is for everyone, even those who hunger for him in ignorance of who he really is. From creation, people have hungered for God, because he made us for himself. God alone can satisfy our deepest longings, but we try to satisfy them in countless ways. We pursue pleasure, success, security, wealth, romance, and numerous other ways to fill the deep longing within. We worship other gods.

God clearly condemns idolatry, but does not condemn that craving for something to make us whole. Indeed, when Paul goes to Athens, the city that epitomized the best of culture in his day, he finds it full of idols. Asked to speak about his God in front of a group of philosophers, Paul does not condemn their hunger for gods, but praises it. Having found an altar inscribed “To An Unknown God,” he says, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).

The God Paul proclaims is the loving God who made heaven and earth. He created humans so he could have relationship with them. “God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). Paul then quotes, not the Bible, but pagan poets who say, “’For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (Acts 17:28).

So what’s wrong with paganism? It’s not simply that these idolaters are wrong about God. What is devastating is that their erroneous view of God kept them from fully embracing his love. Although they do not know it, these idol worshippers are beloved children of God. Our God is not distant, angry, or powerless. He is a God who is near to us, near to all. He wants us to come close to him in love. He became one of us in Jesus to captivate us with gentle, endearing words, and self-sacrificing acts. At our births, he placed within each of us a hunger for happiness, wholeness, and meaning. A hunger for him. God loves and wants you for his own.

A Trinity of Love
This God reveals himself as a Trinity. It is not necessary for us to fathom the Trinity completely. We cannot, for he is the ultimate mystery. We cannot define God, but we can find him. We are invited into a relationship with the Trinity, a God who reveals his love for us in three ways.

God is a loving Father. He is the Father of all in creation (“we are his offspring”) and our Father through his Son Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are as much the beloved sons and daughters of God as Jesus himself. God loves us as much as he loves Jesus. One of the great expressions of God’s love for Jesus came at his baptism. When Jesus is baptized, the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and a voice speaks, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11).

What we may not realize is that what happened to Jesus at his baptism also happened to us. When we were baptized, the heavens opened. No barriers stood between God and us. He removed the curtain of our sin, ignorance, and unbelief and showed himself to us. When we were baptized, the Spirit descended on us. God himself through his Holy Spirit now lives within us and makes us his. Most amazingly of all, when we were baptized, God said, “You are my son, my daughter, whom I love. I am pleased with you!”

And what had Jesus done to deserve to be called the beloved Son of God? What do you mean, “What had he done?” He didn’t have to do anything; he simply was the Son of God. Exactly. And so are we. We are children of God by birth and new birth. We have not earned our status, but God freely gives it. God is a Father who loves his children unconditionally.

But what happens when we spurn God’s love? Do we then forfeit our standing as his children? Does God quit loving us when we refuse to love him? No. The story of the prodigal son shows that even when we abandon him, he waits patiently for our return, keeping robe, ring, and fatted calf prepared. He meets our return not with an angry face and a cold acceptance, but with loving arms and a warm embrace (see Luke 15:11-32). God is always our loving Father.

God became flesh in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the great teacher of love, the human face of the love of God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17). Jesus reveals the face of a loving God who wants us for his own, not one who condemns.

As the great teacher of love, Jesus gave his followers the command to love each other, to love those in the world, and even to love their enemies. But Jesus came not just to command that we love, but to show us how. He calls us to be his students, his disciples, his apprentices who learn from him, our teacher and master. He came to show us what it means to live in God’s love, to realize his love for us, and to show his love to others. From Jesus, we learn how to love God through hearing his word, through prayer, through service, and through sacrifice.

But our relationship with Jesus is more dynamic than simply following his example. It is more than asking, “What would Jesus do?” As we will see in following chapters, we not only learn to pray like Jesus, but he prays in and with us. We do serve others like Jesus because he continues powerfully to serve through us. We love because his love flows through us. God the Son loves in us.

So the spirituality we explore in this book, the mysterious work of God in us, is Christian spirituality. We are not concerned with spirituality in general without concern for the content of spirituality. Its content is the embodied life of God in Jesus and in us. God works in us through Jesus. To be spiritual then is to follow Christ, to be his disciple, to seek his kingdom. We do not know how to love God or neighbor except through Christ who lives in us.

God is a Holy Spirit who transforms us in love. God loved us so much that he sent his only Son to give us eternal life. But Jesus did more for us than simply save us from our sins. He promised his disciples a new Helper, the Holy Spirit, would be with them after he went back to his Father (John 14:15-18). Jesus did not abandon us as his followers, leaving us to do our best without him. Instead, he continues to live and love within us through the Holy Spirit.

God loves and accepts us just as we are, but in his love he does not leave us just as we are. He and Jesus make their home in us through the Spirit, and through the Spirit their love transforms us. This is what we mean by words like “holy,” “sanctification,” and “saint.” God loves us so much that as we live in his love, following Jesus as disciples, we become more like him. We share in his nature, more and more becoming love as he is love.

God is love. The significance of the Trinity for spirituality is that God’s very nature is relationship. Even before he created, God has always existed in the loving relationship among Father, Son, and Spirit. God therefore invites to share in this dynamic relationship, to love as he is love. He draws us into his very life.

In this book, we will talk about different ways we can open our hearts and lives to receive the love of God. But we should never think of these practices as “good works” we do. They do not make us superior to others. They do not make us worthy of God’s love. Instead, these practices allow God to work in us through his Holy Spirit. They are “spiritual” practices, not because they are mysterious, religious, inner, or sacred (although they may be all of these things), but because they come from the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of love.

God’s Invitation to Love
Many Christians may use spiritual disciplines and practices as techniques to make themselves better, holier, and more spiritual. They forget that God gives us these practices so we may seek him. It is God we want, not religion, spirituality, meaning, or even happiness. But to truly desire to “seek the face of God” (Psalm 24:6), we must be assured that he is seeking us. God wants us more than we want him. The eternal, almighty Father, Son, and Spirit deeply desires a relationship with us. That is why we begin a book on spirituality with an extended discussion of God’s love.

That relationship is much like a romance. God does not choose to rule us with an iron fist. He does not set demanding standards for his approval. He does not condemn. He invites. He tries to win us over. He only asks to love and cherish us. For our own good he asks our love in return. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

If the idea of falling in love with God sounds strange to you, remember the Bible frequently describes the relationship between God and his people this way. The Old Testament speaks of God pursuing his beloved Israel with gentle words of intimacy, “”Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14, see also Isaiah 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2; Ezekiel 16:8). God even invites his people to call him their husband: “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master’” (Hosea 2:16).

Jesus uses the language of romance when he calls himself our husband and us his bride (see Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:19; John 3:29). Paul and John also use this romantic, relational, marriage imagery (Romans 7:1-4; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:22-33; Revelation 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17). If we are uncomfortable with this biblical image of romance with God, perhaps we need to examine the depth of our relationship with him. His love for us is stronger than the love of any husband for his wife or wife for her husband.

Christian spirituality is falling in love with the God we see in Christ. That mysterious process of God lovingly at work in us is not a trick, a shortcut, or a technique. It is a way of life. It is believing from the heart, the very center of our being, believing that God loves us. It is living in that place of deep trust and acceptance.

We do not live in that place alone. Not only are we with God, but with others in love. That is why life in community is so important to Christian spirituality. The practices discussed later in this book are not merely for individuals but are always also group practices. There is no Lone Ranger Christian spirituality. Jesus teaches us that even when we go into our private place to be alone with God, we pray not to “my Father” but to “our Father.”

This is why small groups are so essential to spiritual growth. While one can read and follow this book by oneself, it will be much more helpful if practiced in small groups.

Our relationship with a loving God is not always an easy one. Just as in human relationships, the closer we get to God the greater the pain and the greater the joy. Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and die so we can share his glory. Through the Spirit, we put to death the deeds of the body so we may have life (Romans 8:13). Know up front that Christian spirituality is not easy. We might even be afraid that loving God is too hard and demanding.

It is demanding. God wants all that we are. There is no corner of our hearts and lives he does not desire. But he desires them because it is truly good for us. Ultimately, he does not want to fix us, reform us, or merely save us from hell. Instead, he wants to receive us, accept us, and love us.

All this talk of God’s love is not meant simply to make us feel good about ourselves. It is meant to invite us into a life of love. Answering that call will demand our time, effort, and discipline. We should think twice before beginning a more intentional journey of discipleship. But at the end of that long road is a God who loves us. Although we may not always feel him near, he is with us, not just at the end but every step of the way.

We need to look for him at every step. It is helpful to review your life journey so far. Take some time to reflect on how God has constantly pursued you. Look for him in those mountaintop experiences and in times of doubt and despair. Think of the turning points of your life. Was God there? Did you sense him at work? Were you looking? Did you see him at church? In friends? In prayer? In the beauty of the world? In your darkest hour? Have you experienced the absence of God?

Perhaps even now you do not feel him near. Perhaps God still seems distant, angry, or powerless to you. You may feel far from him. You may not feel like God’s beloved son or daughter. What should you do?

The invitation from God still stands. He still wants you whether you feel he does or not. The first step is to act as though God loves you even if you’re not fully convinced he does. If you follow the spiritual practices discussed in this book with the intent of seeking God, then you can act yourself into a new way of being. Faith and feeling will follow if you take God up on his offer of love and relationship. In the words of Therese of Lisieux, “Jesus does not demand great deeds, but only gratitude and self-surrender.”New Wineskins


Resources

Richard Peace, Spiritual Autobiography: Discovering and Sharing Your Spiritual Story

Brent Curtis and John Eldredge, The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God

Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith

Henri J.M Nouwen, Making All Things New

Earl LavenderGary HollowayGary Holloway and Earl Lavender teach Spiritual Formation at Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee. See the book Living in God’s Love at the ZOE Store.

categoria commentoNo Comments dataFebruary 3rd, 2014
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 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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