In the early church, there was a lot of rejection and relational conflict going on as believers began to transition into the newly forming sub-culture we now know as Christianity.  Ethnic and familiar allegiances were taking second place to a new found devotion to the person of Christ and to the local church.  This was especially true of the church in Rome.  At that time, the climate in the Roman community of believers was often marked by discord and strife and therefore proved to be a fertile breeding ground for the delving out of many overly harsh judgments.  Those who not so long ago were considered friends and family, now were viewed as opposing factions.  In the midst of all the mud slinging, Paul challenges the young church to “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom 11:22)

If we’re honest, most of us are much more in touch with God’s sternness (some translations “severity”) than we are his kindness.  Of course there are many reasons why we might have this kind of imbalanced perspective, but none more suspect than the abundance of legalistic doctrine that has been allowed to freely flow from so many of our pulpits.  And to make matters worse, we’ve unknowingly heaped condemnation on ourselves and others for not adhering to all the dogmatic BS we’ve been subjected to.  As a result, many of us have been led to believe that God is somehow fundamentally disappointed in us.  This is just plain sad.  What we believe about the nature of our Heavenly Father will drastically affect the quality of our life.  If we believe that God is usually mad at us, or that our performance is always falling short of what’s expected, then it will be tough for us to enjoy even the best parts of our life.  On the other hand, when we are hanging on to the revelation that God’s unconditional love and acceptance is based solely on our relationship to his Son, then even our difficulties can be seen to have redeeming eternal purpose.

Receiving and relying on the grace of God is both simple and profoundly necessary. Considering the kindness of God begins with a decision to believe that he is gracious and kind by nature, and not the divine drill sargent that we’ve been led to believe.  Of course, like any good father he has to be stern with his children at times.  He will never wink at our disobedience as if it were cute.  But this is precisely why we must “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (Heb 12:15)  Can you see the principle here?  If we somehow “miss” God’s grace, then we will become bitter… toward him, others, and even ourselves.  Have you ever felt that God was just waiting for you to fail so that he could smack you back into line?  Trust me on this my friend, maybe your earthly father gave you that impression, or maybe some other authority figure in your life operated that way, but that is not the way God is!  Malice is just not a part of his make-up.

When we struggle with bitterness, it is because we need a deeper revelation of God’s love for us.  If we receive his grace, then we have it to give to ourselves and others.  If we often feel like he’s angry at us, or disappointed in us, then we’ll just as readily pass that negative emotion on to those around us.  If we allow a “bitter root to grow up” within us, it will invariably “cause trouble” for usand in turn “defile many.” Again, we’re only able to give what we’ve already received.  But that blade cuts both ways.  When we begin to truly rely on the kindness and grace of the Lord, then we’ll have an abundance of it to give away.

Let’s face it, our flesh is always going to be prone to weakness.  “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.” (Ro 7:18)  But keep in mind that all that human frailty is there by design.  If you’re spending much time wrestling with feelings of anger, or you know someone who can’t seem to get over their bitterness, it’s time to apply some grace.  Receive the Father’s forgiveness and then release that forgiveness in every possible direction.  Whether we’re feeling the shame of  someone else’s unrighteous judgment, or we’re the one passing it out, the application of this truth is the same.  “See to it that no one misses the grace of God.” Why?  Because we all need it desperately.  No exceptions. “Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (Jas 2:13)

Lord, you know we need help with this one.  Please grant us a deeper revelation of how much you love us.  Forgive us for our harsh judgments toward ourselves and others.  Forgive us for believing that you’re mad and disappointed with us.  You are a loving Heavenly Father and want nothing more than to bless us and to grant us favor in all that we do.  You are good and kind and so faithful to us.  Thank you for being such a great Dad.  We love you.

For though you have ten thousand teachers in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers… 1Co 4:15

For many years now, I have not been able to go into a Christian bookstore without feeling a profound sense of irritation.  Without fail, as soon as I walk through the front door, all I can think is “get me the heck outta here ASAP.”  I’m not joking or exaggerating about this.  This actually happens to me nearly every time I try to buy a bible, or a gift or something at one of these types of stores.  It’s like I get instantly provoked as if someone with really bad breath was up in my face insulting me while simultaneously poking me in the sternum.  I can’t say that I completely understand what causes this violent impulse reaction in me, but I’m pretty sure it has at least something to do with the abundance of “Jesus Junk” that is characteristically distributed from this kind of venue.  Shelf after shelf, rack after rack of fish emblems, cliché ridden bumper-stickers, T-shirts that rip off the latest fad by inserting a Christian icon into a popular image or design, cutesy coffee mugs with scripture on them… you know what I’m talking about.  Jesus Junk.  And as if the abundance of cheesy merchandise wasn’t bad enough, most stores also stock a wide variety of books that, in my opinion, do little more than add to the already overwhelming burden that believers tend to carry around as it is.  “How to Lose Weight While Praise Dancing” “Keys to a Successful Marriage from the Pentateuch”  “Victorious Christian Living in 10 Days!”  It’s like we take our cues from a decidedly screwed up culture, and then haphazardly create our own diminished version of it.  God forgive us.

But the overall weirdness of our little sub-culture is not my greatest concern.  It’s the fact that somehow we have propagated the mindset that “church” is that place where we go to hear someone else tell us how to be a Christian.  Week after week we sit and eat, sit and eat, until finally we get bored by the limited selection of buffet items and move on to a more promising location for further grazing.  And if our Sunday morning gorge fest doesn’t sufficiently satiate us, now we can surf the web for the latest and greatest messages from all our favorite teachers and listen to them ad nauseam on our I-Pod.  Especially in the U.S., it is certainly not information that we lack, but rather a lifestyle that is derived from and activated by the principles we’ve already accepted as truth.  Wisdom is the application of truth, not just the acquisition of it. By in large, this is where we’re missing it.  We know enough about Jesus right now to turn the world on its ear, but sadly, we are educated far beyond our current level of obedience.  As a result, we have cheapened the Gospel message and the Christian experience in pursuit of more and more head candy.  For many of us, “ten thousand teachers” is not an overstatement of the actual number of influences we’ve subjected ourselves to over the years.  We must repent of this.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Cor 8:1)

In the next reformation, we have to break out of our addiction to rampant information consumption and learn how to make what we know work for us in real life situations.  A stockpile of Bible verses in no way guarantees that we will actually enjoy our relationship with the Lord, nor will it necessarily have a positive affect on anyone else unless we are intentionally walking out those precepts in the context of our relationships.  Just a little revelation of the simple truth that Jesus really does love us can radically impact our neighbor’s life.  But not unless we demonstrate it to him in a way he can understand and receive.  I’ve spent many hours of my life listening to brilliant men debate the nuances of a wide variety of theological minutia… but to what end?  So what if we have an air-tight systematic theology?  Does that really help us love one another?  Who gives a rip if Jesus returns before, during, or after the tribulation?  If we’re living right, it’s not gonna matter anyway!  Too much eschatological mumbo jumbo gives me a headache.

Have you ever asked your computer to do more than its processor was capable of?  We’ve all had our screen lock up, and our CPU shut down due to frantic data input.  Say what you will, but our mind can do the same thing.  Now is the time to return to the simplicity of our faith as we have surely reached level 10 on the information overload scale.  We’ve yoked ourselves to far too many instructors.  We need to own the fact that our current local church paradigm is geared for information gathering… and not much more.  So much so that our intellectual over stimulation has made it very difficult to receive instruction directly from the Lord.   With the abundance of  info we’ve tried to cram into our brains, our Spirit has been left crying out for our attention.  Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for this kind of behavior.  “You diligently study the Scriptures… yet you refuse to come to me” (John 5:39-40)

Learning to follow the leading of the Spirit is a process.  But if we’re his sheep, then rest assured, we do know what His voice sounds like.  We’ve wandered from pasture to pasture long enough.  He is our shepherd… not the guy behind the pulpit.  Not the last book we read.  We can’t blame our pastor or our church if we don’t feel like we’re fulfilling the personal call that is uniquely on each one of us.    We all have the same responsibility, to simply listen and obey.  But if we’re listening to “every wind of teaching” then we’re bound to get “tossed back and forth.”  (Eph 4:14)  Most of us are not called to a ministry within the confines of the local church structure.  Instead, we should be looking for opportunities to illuminate our homes, our workplaces, our neighborhoods with the light that every believer carries within.  The spirit will do in an instant what our striving could not accomplish in a million years. (Gal 3:3)

Remember how great you felt when you first realized that God loved and accepted you just as you are?  As new believers, it’s not uncommon to go through a period during which we experience a sense of being “love sick” for Jesus.   We’ve always called this “The Honeymoon Season” of the faith.  Ever watched a pair of newlyweds that can’t seem to keep their hands off each other?  We knew this one guy who, for several months after meeting the Lord, literally could not stop hugging each and every person he encountered. It was as if he was so full of the Lord’s affection that he just had to give some away so that he wouldn’t explode.  You see, when we lose touch with our first love, that’s when we stop having fun. That’s when Christianity becomes burdensome.  Our faith turns into a string of unending responsibilities and obligatory tasks.  His yoke truly is light and delightful.  The yokes of others are a big flippin drag and they suck the life out of us quicker than we can compensate for them.  We have to take them off.  In the next reformation, we must learn to hear from the Lord for ourselves and to show discretion with the frequency and number of our external influences.    In turn, the Lord will help us to cease from our striving and to enter into the kind of rest that our souls are so desperately in need of.   Lead on oh King eternal.

I recently asked the question in one of our meetings, “Why is it that we (the church) sometimes seem to have so much trouble going deeper and being more vulnerable in our relationships with each other?”  The answers that came back were remarkably consistent.  In a nutshell, the standard response was “we’re tiered of getting hurt.”  One guy likened his hesitancy to pursue relationships to the memory of being at the Jr. High dance and being afraid of  crossing the room to ask a girl to dance for fear that she might turn him down.   Rejection can be a crushing blow to our identity and sense of self worth… even as adults.  We all have an inborn need to feel that who we are matters, to God and to others.  But in our pursuit of validation, we have often been reminded of how limited our capacity can be to bestow value and worth on one another.  Some of our attempts at genuine relationship have even resulted in a crystal clear confirmation of that which we fear the most… the sense that who we are and what we have to offer really doesn’t matter that much.  This can be especially painful when that message is communicated through our local church experience.  And yet, because we were created to function in the context of intimacy and community, we are subconsciously driven to keep putting ourselves out there in hopes of attaining at least a tolerable level of acceptance and approval.

In the 1940s, Abraham Maslow, one of the early proponents of developmental psychology, proposed that our most basic needs include:

  1. Self Actualization – our need to reach our full potential and destiny.
  2. Esteem – our need to be valued and respected by self and others.
  3. Social – our need to be connected to a larger group and to be loved and accepted within that group.

He also noted that we will sometimes be willing to deny ourselves even our most basic of needs, like food, in order to gain acceptance and a sense of belonging within a group.  I believe Maslow understood some things that many of us in the church have somehow lost touch with.  The top three tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can easily be supported by scripture and are clearly in sink with the Lord’s heart for his people.  Does he want us to reach our intended purpose and destiny?  To be all we were meant to be?  How important is it that we have a deep sense that we are valued, loved, accepted, and connected to something much bigger than ourselves?  More importantly, how many of us currently feel that these needs are being sufficiently met?

Because of our culture’s transient nature and the unspoken devotion we have to our long standing local church paradigm, many believers have basically learned to live without some of the very things that we need the most.  Even more concerning is the fact that some of us have gone as far as to simply give up our hope of attaining meaningful relationship altogether.  There seems to be a growing trend among Christians to adopt the attitude of, “It’s just not worth it… I’ve been burnt before, I’ll just get burnt again.”  This has produced an army of believers who no longer have the bond of being united against a common enemy, but now feel it necessary to trust no one and to guard their heart so closely that none are allowed to enter its deeper recesses… including God.  This has left much of the bride feeling very alone and isolated.

The lord provided us with the quintessential example of vulnerability in John 13:3-5

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;  so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

 

It has always amazed me that Jesus, knowing full well that he was soon going to be betrayed, rejected, and completely abandoned by his closest of friends, was still willing to serve them in such a personal way.  His humility and unguarded vulnerability remained in tact, even in the face of ultimate rejection and unparalleled emotional pain.  But notice the first verse in this passage, the Lord had an acute awareness “that he had come from God and was returning to God” I submit to you that Jesus was able to let his guard down only because of the nature of his relationship to his Father.   His identity was secure.  He knew where he had come from, and he knew where he was headed.  Although he loved those men dearly, he did not need their validation or approval in order to serve them in this most intimate and gracious of ways.

At last count, I have held a paid staff position at 10 different churches.  Since 1984, my primary vocation has been that of a Pastor.  In that time, my wife and I have served in everything from Mega-Monsters to small home churches.  From conservative mainline denominational to independent  charismatic… upper class suburban to inner-city poor.  One thing has remained consistent.  People come to church for many reasons, but ultimately they stay for only one reason… relationships.  We will invariably put up with all kinds of church craziness when we are “rightly joined and fitted together.”   But we will bail at the first sign of trouble if we have the sense that no one really gives a rip about us, or that we won’t be accepted for who we really are.  It’s time that Christians come to terms with our need for belonging and acceptance.  Ultimately it is about our relationship with the Father.  We must constantly be in pursuit of a deeper revelation of his unconditional love and acceptance of us as his children.  But this is where we’re missing it.  WE ARE TO BE OUR FATHER’S EXPRESSION OF LOVE TO ONE ANOTHER.  How do we best receive God’s love for us if not through another’s loving touch, or words, or actions?  Jesus clearly understood this principle.  He was a living breathing testimony of how we’re to conduct ourselves as believers.  Did he wall off his heart for fear of further injury?  Did he avoid meaningful relationship in order to forgo rejection?  No, he kept throwing himself out there… serving, healing, and ministering compassion through up close and personal contact.  Though it is clear that he frequently escaped the constant drain of ministry so he could spend uninterrupted time with his father, he just kept coming back for more, finally to endure unspeakable torture and death as his final demonstration of love.

I believe the Lord is saddened by the overall level of relational superficiality that most believers are currently experiencing in their local church.  In truth, what or who’s to blame for this reality is probably a mute point…  but as church leaders, it is our responsibility to do something about it.   And more often than not, it starts with us.  Church leadership will undoubtedly provide plenty of opportunities for relational strife and personal heartbreak.  Many pastors, myself included, have had to fight off the tendency of becoming overly protective of their heart in order to survive.  But erecting impenetrable walls around our heart eventually results in love starvation and an overwhelming sadness or anger toward God and others.

The next reformation for the church in the U.S. must involve some kind of systematic emotional restoration effort for its people.  Christianity has to be lived from the heart.  Our passion and emotions must be engaged and alive both vertically and horizontally if we hope to accomplish anything of eternal value.  If we find ourselves trying to do all the right things, but our primary motivation is our sense of obligation or duty, we won’t last very long.  When we remain offended, or we refuse to seek healing for our wounded emotions, we are a sitting duck for demonic oppression and torment.  Our enemy knows that if he can get us to close off our heart… he’s got us.  A little un-forgiveness goes a long way toward knocking us out of the race.

(1 Pet 2:4-5) tells us that Jesus was the original “ living Stone–rejected by men” and that “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…” If you feel rejected, you have to understand that you’re in good company.  Rejection is an avoidable right of passage for true spiritual authority.  And somehow through the process of our heart being repeatedly wounded and healed… it becomes stronger and yet more pliable at the same time.  When we are unwilling to be vulnerable with the Lord or others it is a sign that we have lost our trust in our Father’s sovereignty and loving watchfulness over us.  The local church is that spiritual house built with living stones.  And like the temple rebuilt by Zerubbabel, many of those stones will be burnt and forever scared by the ravages of battle.  Nonetheless, in order for us to function properly… or even to survive for that matter, we must be connected to one another.  Not just organizationally, but at the heart level.

The local church must regain its commitment to being a refuge for those in need of emotional restoration and a place where the building of meaningful relationships is a top priority.  As individuals, we must pursue a deeper revelation of the Father’s unconditional love and acceptance for us so that we have that kind of genuine love to give to others.  Only when we lay ourselves before the Lord and become vulnerable to his touch can we find the kind of intimacy that we all secretly long for.  As a result of our poor treatment of one another, and our faulty perceptions of how we might feel the Lord has treated us, we can sometimes be prone to relational superficiality.  We must resist this proclivity.  Our spiritual life depends on it.  Our ability to function as an integral member of the body depends on it.  The fulfillment of our destiny depends on it.  The next reformation will require a renewed focus on the value and importance of maintaining a deep, heartfelt relationship with the Lord and our fellow believers.

Jesus we really need help here.  We want to serve you with a whole heart and an open Spirit.  Please forgive us for holding on to our offendedness toward you.  We know you love us and want nothing more than for us to be able to feel that love in a tangible way.  Please forgive us for hanging on to our un-forgiveness toward our brothers and sisters.  We trust you, and we release them and what they’ve done to us back to you.  We recognize that they’re struggling and stumbling along just like we are.  Forgive them.  Please heal our emotional wounds.  Heal your church Lord.  Heal the bride so fully that her beauty will cause the heavens and the earth to swoon.

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