This is the second chapter of the book I mentioned in the previous post.
How do we Give it to Him?
But first, let me introduce you to Mehmet. Perhaps you can relate to him. He’s not a real person, but I believe more than a few people are in his situation. Mehmet spent the first 25 years of his life believing that God would judge him based on how good he was. So he did his best to be a “good person.” He fasted, prayed, and performed all the other duties he thought were required. His efforts to be good gave him stability in life.
But after a while he began to struggle with his religion. He had thoughts like, “My religion says that I must do certain things to get to Heaven. But I’m not doing them well enough. I fast, but not enough. I pray often, but not enough. So, according to my religion, I’ll probably go to Hell. Yet, religious leaders, who claim to actually do everything, don’t know if they’ll go to Heaven either.” This was unsettling, to say the least. His search for wholeness led him to pick up a Bible given to him long ago by a Christian. What he read in the Bible encouraged him. He saw Jesus beckoning people to come to him and find rest. Mehmet saw how he could know God and be certain he had eternal life. In order to learn more about Christianity, he found a small church of committed Christians. Their lives seemed whole because they were able to live out what they believed. After much reflection, he became a Christian and was baptized.
Mehmet felt very successful at first, but eventually the unsettling feelings began to return. The more he read the Bible and listened to sermons, the more he saw the need to be holy, and the clearer it became that he was not holy. He knew he viewed things on TV and the internet would not honor God. Sometimes he got angry and hurt people. He had trouble always telling the truth. The Bible, which first attracted him by the offer of new life, seemed to be an endless list of really hard things to do. He had thought becoming a Christian would be a good way to start over, but his life was not any better. In honest moments he would ask himself, “Have I traded one list of rules for a different list of rules, which I thought were easier but are actually harder? What happened to the loving God who sent Jesus to die for my sins? Where is He when I’m failing?”
So what do we make of Mehmet’s situation? He has two problems. First, he misses what God really wants, which is to love Him. Even after he became a Christian, he is still headed in the wrong direction because the goal of Christianity is not just to “start over,” but to change the object of our love.
The second problem is that Mehmet lacks power to actually obey God, and we’ll see this is closely related to the first problem. Remember the verse that described people as having “have the appearance of godliness, but lack power.” That describes Mehmet, wouldn’t you say? He sees the radical call to godliness, and he wants to comply, but he doesn’t know how to get there. As a result, he attempts good works, but doesn’t actually accomplishes much. Where does the power come from to get there?
The power for real godliness comes from a relationship with God. The Bible clearly shows this: “We love, because He [God] first loved us” (1 John 1:19). The context indicates that our love includes both love for God and love for others. This verse shows us that we can love God (and others) in response to God’s love for us. We saw in the last chapter that what God really wants form us is love. Now we see that the way we give it to Him is by realizing His love for us. When we start with God’s love for us, we’ll be headed in the right direction because we can love God in response to His love for us. We’ll also have the power to produce real godliness.
What about everything else God requires, like holiness, purity, and loving others? The Bible is unmistakably clear that these things are necessary, but that they come after people have a relationship with God. God calls people to holy living after He calls them into a relationship with Himself. We don’t have to become holy so that we can have a relationship with God. Rather, He invites us into a relationship with Himself first! Then, based on this relationship, we become holy. The holiness is not a condition for that relationship, but a consequence of that relationship. Let’s take a quick journey through the Bible and see evidence of this pattern.
First, notice the way God relates to Abraham and his children. God chooses Abraham and declares that from Abraham He will create a great nation (Gen 12:1-3,15:17-18). God declares that He is this nation’s God and they are “His possession” and “His inheritance” (Deut 32:9). As part of this relationship, God comes down to be with His people: He says, “I will make My dwelling among you, and My soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be My people” (Lev 26:11-12). Scripture is clear that God takes ownership of the people.
Because God takes ownership the people, He requires them to be holy. God says of Abraham, “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen 18:19). In other words, God chooses Abraham so that Abraham will be righteous and just.
Second, notice what God says to the nation when he delivers them from bondage. The nation had been slaves in Egypt. But God rescues them and declares, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. You shall be Holy for I am Holy” (Lev 11:45). Notice in this passage that in order to encourage the nation to be holy, God says two important things. First, God has taken the nation out of Egypt to be their God. In other words, He has rescued them from slavery and made them children of the living God. They are rescued from cruel taskmasters who seek to harm them, and they are brought into a relationship with the living God who seeks to bless them. Second, He says, “for I am Holy.” God’s nature as holy means God exists in complete moral perfection. God never does anything wrong. He hates wickedness and loves what is right and true. God is pure light, and in Him there is no darkness at all (John 1:5). Putting this together, God’s people must become holy because they have a relationship with the Holy God.
The relational basis for holiness comes into clearer focus when we pay attention to the chronological order in which God calls the people to Himself and commands that they be holy. God calls the people to himself in the book of Exodus when he rescues the nation from slavery. This calling comes before God gives the nation His laws in the book of Leviticus, including the command “You shall be holy for I am Holy” Notice the pattern: first they become God’s chosen nation (Ex 20:2), then God tells them what they must do (Lev 11:45). God does not first give them the laws in Egypt to see how they perform before He decides whether or not to take them as His own. Instead, they are completely delivered and made into God’s people first (Exodus). Then, because of their relationship with God, they are called to be Holy (Leviticus).
Similarly, we don’t become a Christian because we are holy. We become a Christian because God initiates a relationship with us on the basis of Christ. Then, because of our relationship with God in Christ, we become holy (More on that later).
So, how are we going to help Mehmet with his struggle for holiness? We are certainly not going to suggest that holiness is unimportant. He’s right to see in the Bible the all-encompassing call to a radically new life for those who are in a relationship with God. But there are at least two ways Mehmet could be heading the wrong direction. First, he could miss the fact that love is the essential requirement. If he is not loving God, he has no power to do everything else. Second, he could begin to think he must first become holy on his own before he can be in relationship with God. This way of thinking is completely wrong. First God establishes the relationship; then, on the basis of the relationship, He calls Mehmet (and you and I) to be holy.
Hopefully now you are convinced that having a relationship with God is important. God wants our love. And the way we give it to Him is by knowing His love for us. Both happen in the context of a relationship. Thus, a relationship with God is not just for emotional people, people with no friends, or weak people, who might need some help. It’s the only way we can be the people God has called us to be.
Now you might be thinking, “But I can’t just turn on a switch to make me love and delight in God.” Good observation. You can’t! Scripture never pretends that you can. But remember, We love because He first loves us! So what do we do? In order for us to love God, the first thing we must do is look away from ourselves—away from our successes, failures, efforts, disappointments—to look at God as He lovingly reveals Himself in Christ and receive a relationship from Him. Then we will know how to respond to God in love.
In the next few chapters we want to look in more detail at how God invites us to a relationship with Himself. This will set the stage for how we can respond.