Today was an exciting day. Over the last year, I wrote a short book on sanctification, which I intended to have translated into Turkish. Today the two chapters were finished. Here’s chapter I:
The Big Picture
Slavish fear may extort some slavish hypocritical performances from us, such as that of Pharaoh in letting [God’s people] go…against his will. But the duty of love cannot be extorted and forced by fear, but it must be won, and sweetly allured by an apprehension of God’s love and goodness toward us.
~ Walter Marshall
What God wants from Us
This might sound crazy, but up until the second grade, I had never played a game of soccer. But when I switched schools mid-way through the second grade, I joined the rest of the class in playing this new game where they tried to kick the ball in each other’s goal. I quickly realized how much fun—and somewhat addictive—the game was. I wasn’t a great player, but I played with my new friends all spring. And in the summer, I signed up for a soccer program. In this program, we learned some basic skills, and then played a “real” game. This was the first time I ever played a game with real teams and we actually kept score. After half-time, the coach put me and another player in the middle of the field with the ball. When the whistle blew, the other player kicked me the ball, and I began using all my new skills to take the ball toward the goal as fast as I could. But something unexpected happened. The opposing team didn’t try to stop me. My team seamed confused. All of the sudden the whistle blew again and I was informed that after half-time the teams switch sides. I had been going the wrong way!
That was not the first or last time I used great effort to go in the wrong direction. I grew up thinking that I could be a good person on my own. My goal in life was to get people to like me because of my goodness. And, I figured if other people like me because I was good, God would like me too. But eventually I learned from the Bible that I was not doing what God wanted at all. The words of the Bible woke me up to my mistake like the whistle that hot July day. I realized that the great effort to be good wasn’t actually accomplishing anything. There was something else that God wanted, which I hadn’t contributed to at all. God wasn’t pleased with me because how good I thought I was, but he looked at me as my coach and teammates, thinking, “That idiot, He’s going the wrong way!”
Are you going the wrong way? I don’t mean on the soccer field. I mean in life. Have you ever asked yourself, what does God really want? and, am I giving Him what He wants?
This is important because it is possible to be going in the wrong direction in life. The Bible is full of examples of such people. Paul, for example, talks about people who are Lovers of self, lovers of money, proud…lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:2,4-5).
Notice, first, that these people have “the appearance of godliness.” There is some outward show of being good. What this “appearance” looks like could differ widely, but it, at least, includes my efforts to be good and get people (and God) to like be for my goodness. It includes those who display the outward forms of the Christian religion—going to church, taking the Lord’s Supper, putting money in the offering bag, and even reading their bibles—but lack a real relationship with God. Having only the “appearance of godliness” is dangerous because this “appearance” can fool us into thinking we are doing what God wants, when we are really going in the wrong direction.
To what criteria does Paul point to say that these people are going in the wrong direction? Paul points to the object of their love. They love themselves. They love pleasure. They don’t love God. It’s not their outward actions that God is concerned about. It’s their hearts, their love. And it is headed in the wrong direction.
Paul probably has in mind Jesus’ teaching on the importance of loving God when he wrote this. At one point people asked Jesus, “What is the most important command?” Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Mat 22:37-40). Jesus was saying that everything we are—our emotions, our intellect, our will, and even our body—should be set on loving God. Are you obeying this commandment?
When counseling Christians, sometimes I ask them if they love God, and the question is confusing to them. They often respond by giving me two lists. First, they list all the things that they do for God: “But of course I love God. Why else would I go to church? Why would I be a Christian when it cost me my friends, and could cost me my life? Why would I serve? See! I love God,” they say. Second, they list sins which other people do, but they don’t do: “I love God because I don’t steal, I don’t cheat. I don’t hurt people. So I must love God.
But this misses the point. The Bible never equates doing things for God with loving God. They’re related, as we’ll see, but they aren’t the same. One of the most sobering passages in Scripture is when Jesus says that people will present to him an impressive “list” of their good works still not make it into Heaven: “Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Mat 7:22-23). God never knew these people in spite of their great acts for God. Apparently, they were going the wrong way. And, therefore, they will be eternally condemned.
In order to see how behavior is not equated to loving God, consider what Paul says in a chapter devoted to the nature of love: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3). Think about it: if it is possible to give your body to be burned but not have love, love must be more than just acts of service and sacrifice, right? Otherwise, to give your body to be burned would be the extreme expression of love, and there would be no way that Paul could conceive of someone giving his or her body to be burned but not loving.
When you considered the question, “Do you love God?” maybe you thought of a list of the good works you’ve done. Even if that list included giving your body to be burnt, it would not be sufficient proof that you loved God. God wants something else.
What is it?
Jeremiah the prophet helps us understand what it means to love God by showing God’s perspective on His people’s sin and rebellion: “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer 2:13). According to God, the problem is not merely that the people have failed to live up to God’s code; rather they have failed to drink from God as the only source of living water that will satisfy them. Their relationship with God should quench their deepest need in life, like clean water quenches thirst on a hot summer day. But they turned God down. For this failure God has said they are evil! In another passage God says He will send the people into exile because they did not serve Him with “joyfulness and gladness” in their hearts (Deut 28:47). Peter sums up what God wants well when he says, “Though you do not see Him you love Him, and rejoice with inexpressible joy full of glory” (1 Pet 1:8). Clearly, delight, desire, and joy in God are essential requirements of God. What God wants from us includes us having joy in Him and being satisfied by Him.
To understand how raw obedience does not equate to love, consider this example. I generally try to obey the speed limit while driving. I do this because I think it is better for me not to get a fine. I obey the authorities, but I don’t love the authorities. The proof that I do not love the authorities is that I benefit from my obedience because the authorities stay away from me. I want to obey so that I never have to relate to them. But to love is to derive benefit because the object of our love is close, and so that we do relate to it.
We see evidence of this love all over the pages of Scripture. “But as for me,” one psalm writer says, “the nearness of God is my good” (Ps 73:18 emphasis added). Peter’s love for Christ is expressed when Jesus asks Peter, “Will you leave as well?” and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). David expresses his love to God when he says, “In Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps 16:11). Do you obey God so that He stays far away from you (like I obey the traffic authorities), or do you obey God because He is close to you, and you want Him even closer? Do you love God, or are you going the wrong way?
I know this interpretation of what God wants could seem utterly shocking. Why does God really care about our love? After all, God is in heaven. He has everything he could possibly want. Why does it matter whether or not I get joy from Him?
If we were left tinkering with our own ideas of what we thought God may or may not be like. We would never come up with this idea that God wants us to have joy in Him. Yet, in Holy Scripture, God has revealed something profoundly different. According to Scripture God has, of his own unrestrained will, decided to enter into a relationship with His people, and our part in the relationship is to find our joy in Him.
The reason why we can have a relationship with God has nothing to do with human intelligence or might, but has everything to do with God, out of His condescending love, reaching down to humans. God comes down to deal with people on their own level. We see this when he comes down to walk with Adam and Eve in the garden, when he comes down to talk to Abraham, when he sends Moses down from the mountain to reveal His law to the people, and—most importantly—when Jesus Christ, God incarnate, comes down to live among the people, die on the cross, and rise again to restore them to a relationship with Himself.
So, if you think that what God wants sounds preposterous, you’re right. It is. And we’d have no right to believe it if it wasn’t for the fact that God has revealed it so plainly in the pages of Scripture.
Now there is a possible misunderstand that we have to correct. Some might say, “If God’s major requirement is love, can I live however I want as long as I love God?” The answer is, “No.” Why not? One of the goals of this book is to answer why not, by connecting loving God with the how we obey God in the concrete details of our lives. But the short answer is that if we love God, we will love what God loves, namely His holiness and righteousness. We will want to be holy for God’s sake. Merely because you act in a certain way, doesn’t mean you love God—we could have the “appearance” of godliness, but be lacking the true thing. However, if we really love God, we will act a certain way—a way that seeks to reflect God’s holy character.
Switching directions on the soccer field was a little embarrassing, but relatively easy. I don’t think I ever made the same mistake again. But switching the direction of your love is not so easy, and I continually find myself going the wrong way in life. The change in direction that God wants means changing the object of your love, changing your motives, and changing what you delight in. This is hard. How do we do that? The answer will begin to unfold in the next chapter.