The second truth that grips me is that, because of His gift to us of free will, He does not just zap us and make us into little robots who are just like Him.
Becoming like Jesus Christ requires co-operation on our part.
The Holy Spirit does the work in us as far as we co-operate with Him; but He can’t transform a person who doesn’t submit to the process. His part is to show us what needs to change in our lives; our part is to repent, submit to His Word and work, and take the steps necessary to change our behavior or attitude while leaning on Him for help, strength, determination, humility.
In Exodus 17 the Amalekites attack the Israelites as they are on their journey through the wilderness. Joshua, as the military commander of Israel, leads the people into battle while Moses, Aaron and Hur go to the top of a high hill with the Staff of God – the Banner of God – lifted high to encourage the people in their fight.
As long as the people can see the Banner of God raised high, they fight bravely and begin to defeat their foes; but when Moses’ arms grow weary and begin to lower, the people lose sight of the Banner of God. They begin to lose heart in the battle and the advantage shifts to the enemy. Aaron and Hur see what is happening and take steps to prop Moses’ arms up so the people never lose sight of the Banner of God. The Israelites are able to fight bravely on and are ultimately victorious over the enemy. To commemorate this great deliverance Moses builds an altar and names it The Lord Is My Banner.
According to Ann Spangler in Praying the Names of God, banners were often carried by armies as marks of identification and as symbols that embodied the ideals of the people (109). Moses’ staff symbolized the might and power and love of the God who had delivered them from bondage in Egypt, led them through the desert, and provided water and food when they were hungry and thirsty.
This staff, this banner, was the symbol that their God was powerful enough to defeat every foe and overcome every obstacle. When they remembered that God was for them, they had the will, the strength, the stamina, and the encouragement to keep on fighting the battle and were victorious. When they forgot that God was with them, they began to lose the battle. Centuries later, we continue to face battles on the way to the promised land, and some of the worst of them are internal battles – like learning to love.
1 Corinthians 13 speaks about patience being a mark of love, and if I’m serious about becoming more like Jesus, I realize that some radical work needs to be done in my heart. We read that love is patient and kind. These are qualities that define our Lord, but we are so often impatient with others: the person who drives 45 mph on the interstate, the person in front of us at Kroger with an envelope full of coupons, the child who makes a mess every place he goes, the immigrant whose English is difficult to understand.
Cooperating with the Holy Spirit means we don’t just acknowledge that we are frequently impatient and then expect Him to zap us into more patient people.
Co-operation with the Holy Spirit requires prayer and submission and work, identifying strategies for avoiding the sin, looking to Him in the battle, and trusting in His power, provision and love.
"Lord, I realize that impatience does not reflect Your image and character. Convict me each time I am impatient so that I might turn aside from it and choose patience and kindness instead. I want to become more like You and so reflect Your image. Cleanse my heart of every attitude that nullifies patience in my life. Thank You for Your mighty, transforming power at work in me. Thank You for Your patience and kindness toward me. Help me to rest in Your love and peace so that I might truly reflect Your image to my family first, and to others I rub shoulders with each day. May they see You reflected in my life. Amen."
One day he realizes that as a hired hand on his father’s estate he would be in much better shape, so he decides to return home, confess his unworthiness as a son and beg for a job. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (v.20). The father orders that clean clothes and shoes be brought, along with the family signet ring, and throws a feast to celebrate the return of the son he thought was dead.
I just love that, don’t you? Many of us have wept in joy and gratitude that the Father forgave us and welcomed us into His family when we were so unworthy, when we had been so far away, when we had deliberately taken the good gifts He had given us and walked away from Him. We are overwhelmed to remember that He ran to us when we took one step toward Him. I can still hear my friend Scott sing “When God Ran”:
Almighty God, the great I am
Immovable Rock, omnipotent, powerful, Awesome Lord
Victorious Warrior, commanding King of kings, mighty Conqueror
And the only time, the only time I ever saw him run
Was when He ran to me. He took me in his arms
Held my head to his chest, said “my son's come home again”
He Lifted my face, Wiped the tears from my eyes
With forgiveness in his voice He said,
“Son, do you know I still love you?”
Just remind yourself of that day if you haven’t thought of it in a while.
But actually, though I do identify with the younger brother, I also relate to the older brother. We find him, as the story continues, coming home from work, tired. He hears the party going on, finds out his brother has come home and refuses to join the welcome celebration. He sulks because he doesn’t feel he’s been treated right. Oh, I can relate. I have sulked many times in my life instead of graciously, lovingly reaching out. And the really sad thing is that this brother saw his life with his father as drudgery – “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders” (v.29).
I saw the father’s response with new eyes this week: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (v. 31). In other words: I didn’t just give you a party, I gave you everything I have. The fields you “slaved” in were your fields. And you were not alone, penniless, in a foreign country. We were here together. Family. But the older brother did not realize how much he was loved and was therefore unable to lovingly welcome his brother back home. He probably felt pretty good about himself – the brother who stayed, worked hard, proved that he was the better son. The reason he didn’t love his brother was not that he didn’t love himself enough; it was because he didn’t know how much he was loved by his father and he didn’t value his relationship with his father.
When we don’t know how much we are loved, it is very difficult to love others. And trying to learn to love ourselves first always puts the focus on us – our needs, our desires, our wants, our way. True love places the focus on others – their needs and desires. Perhaps the truth behind the saying “You can’t love others until you love yourself” is really “You can’t give others what you don’t have.” We can’t love others when we ourselves don’t know that we are loved and that all of our needs have already been met; but the love that meets the deep needs and desires of our hearts is not self-love, but God’s love. When we truly know we are loved by Him we also know that He has met all of our needs and fills all of our desires. That’s when we are able to love those we might not have chosen: strangers, people different from us, opponents, enemies.
If you doubt God’s love for you, just ask Him to show you how much He loves you. You’ll find signs of His love everywhere in your life, if you’ll look. And the Scriptures are filled with assurances of His love for us; read them too, and ask Him to help you understand. This year I’m marking every verse that talks about God’s love with a heart. It’s amazing how many places throughout both the Old and New Testaments that God speaks His love. And remember this: God loved you so much He gave Jesus Christ to die on the cross to pay the price for your sins.
There is no greater love than this.
When God Ran, Hester Benny Ray / Parenti John William, © Word Music
The kind of love the world needs is the love that comes from a life that is surrendered to Jesus, and keeps surrendering, keeps vowing to follow Him when the going gets really tough.
While studying 1 Corinthians this week, I came across this thought in my devotional reading: THIS IS NOT A CHECKLIST.
Have I been patient today? – check.
Have I been kind – check?
I must be a pretty loving person.
But – perhaps it IS a checklist, but of a different kind. A checklist of surrender:
"Lord, I surrender to You all those things that cause me to erupt in anger and become impatient. I confess to You that I’m not always kind to my spouse or my kids or that annoying co-worker.
Do Your cleansing work in my life so I can respond with kindness at all times to all people, even those closest to me. I surrender to You my pride that causes me to boast about myself or keeps me from humbly serving others. Sometimes I’m jealous or envious of others, and that keeps me from rejoicing when good things happen to them – sometimes I even rejoice when bad things happen in their lives because of jealousy, irritation, or perceived wrong. Lord, help me so that I might love better."
Do you see what I mean? The kind of love the Scriptures teach is not the kind we can work up ourselves by trying harder. Our hearts must change, and heart change comes from confession, repentance, and surrender that leads to forgiveness, healing and cleansing.
Learning to love a broken world, people who are quite different from us, or those we strongly disagree with, only comes through complete surrender to the Lord’s redeeming and refining work in our lives.
Without that, the world will never know God's love at work in His followers.
Just before He was betrayed by one of His 12 disciples Jesus spoke these words to them: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
It’s interesting to me that He said this even when He knew the betrayal was coming. He knew it would affect not only Him, but also the rest of the 12 who had walked and talked and joked with and trusted Judas. They would keenly feel the betrayal. He also knew they were about to encounter people who would kill Him, their best friend.
What do you do with these kinds of feelings? How do you love the one who betrays your teacher and best friend resulting in His crucifixion? “Everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love…”
This is a strong challenge for me. I’m not always a good lover, but even though I can’t love well on my own Jesus continued with these words: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me” (John 14:1).
I don’t have to be troubled that I cannot do this on my own, for Jesus invites me to trust Him and allow Him to do in me what I cannot do for myself.
This is the kind of love that brings glory and praise to God and brings healing into the world.
Beth Marie Bearden gave her heart to Christ when she was a young teenager and soon after felt God calling her to ministry.