When Jesus is asked what the greatest command is [Matthew 22] He gives a sneaky two-parter answer which is basically: Love God with everything and love your neighbour as yourself. If this was the most important thing to Jesus, it should be to us.
What i love about the Matthew passage is the little p.s. after Jesus gives the command which says, ‘All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two things.’ The Law and the Prophets were basically the Bible Jesus had in His day. So the whole of the God-given message to you is reliant on you loving God with everything and loving your neighbour as you love yourself.
So when a cult masquerading as a church like Westboro Baptist can be seen holding up a sign that reads, “God hates fags!” that is a really easy one to dismiss because it goes against the very nature of God. And the command of God.
The 1 Corinthians 13 passage gives us an idea of the kind of love we are talking about – the intro reminds us that we can do all the spiritual-looking-and-sounding things but if we don’t have love, we are nothing.
What i’ve found helpful when assessing how i’m doing with Love is to work slowly through this list and substitute my name every time the word ‘Love’ is there and if it doesn’t sound true, there is work to be done… So, “Is Brett patient? Is Brett kind?…”
Love is patient
Love is kind.
Love does not envy.
Love does not boast.
Love is not proud.
Love does not dishonour others.
Love is not self-seeking.
Love is not easily angered.
Love keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
Love always protects.
Love always trusts.
Love always hopes.
Love always perseveres.
Love never fails.
How did you do?
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Love has everything to do with feelings. That is a part of it but real Love is a lot more about action.
On a good day, i can get my mind around the ‘Love your neighbour’ part… but it is the “as yourself” that usually seems to trip me up. That calls for a much higher sacrificial kind of servant heart, attitude and action. When Jesus starts adding enemies into the mix it feels almost impossible.
If you call yourself a christian or are trying to live out your life as a follower of Jesus, then you HAVE to major in Love.
This may feel like a bit of a subtle wordplay one to some, but i think it is actually very important.
While church is the place we go to on Sunday, it allows us mentally to think that church is a once a week thing which feeds the disconnect so many people have between Sunday and the rest of the week.
The moment we realise that as we become followers of Jesus we become the church [the body of Christ] then it has to affect our lives Monday to Sunday.
How i spend my money changes once i believe i am the church.
Who i choose to engage with changes once i realise i am the church.
What i choose to do with my time shifts the moment i embrace that i am the church.
Christianity moves from being a once a week hobby [a belief] to a daily lived out experience that requires commitment in every aspect of my life.
Time. Money. Possessions. Skills. Dreams. Vocation. Residence. Action. Energy.
We are called to be the body of Christ [1 Corinthians 12] and live as if Jesus was physically living here today.
Which means it is important for us to study how Jesus lived, who Jesus engaged with, what Jesus said and what Jesus believed.
When people witness how you live, the decisions you make, the way you spend your money, your attitude towards those who are different than you, your forgiveness [or lack thereof] to those who hurt you, will they come to the conclusion that you are following Jesus.
Do you carry around the fragrance of Christ [2 Corinthians 2.15] or when people get a whiff of you is it more like the rest of the world, with not too much discernible difference?
Church is the people, it is not the place. This is not to say that the place and gathering are not important – gathering is essential in our understanding of what church is – but it should not be the extent of our faith and belief. We are called to be the church every day, every day.
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#3: Engage with the word of God
Many people who call themselves christian do not spend a lot of time personally engaging with the bible. Which is a huge problem.
For many people the only bible they ‘read’ comes from the man [cos let’s be honest, most of the time it’s a man] at the front of the church meeting on a Sunday [or maybe on a podcast during the week]. The idea that every sermon is going to be relevant for every person every week seems quite ridiculous to me and so it is important that we spend time in the bible ourselves.
If we saw ourselves as responsible for our own spiritual feeding then that would free us up on Sundays to be engaged with other parts of the service and be looking out for opportunities to talk to/pray with others.
A lot of modern thinking seems to suggest that the bible is a problem or irrelevant to today and i completely disagree. In fact, i love this quote from Søren Kierkegaard which gets much closer to the heart of the problem:
‘The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.’
When we start to know the bible better, then we will more easily be able to recognise heresy and untruth when it presents itself. When a preacher starts talking about Justice as a by-product of the Gospel for example, we will instantly know that he is completely missing the point. This is where i love the example of the Bereans in the book of Acts:
‘Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.’ [Acts 17.11]
Jesus gave us that example so strongly during His temptations in the desert where three times His response began with the words, ‘It is written…’ – the devil could not trick Jesus because Jesus knew what was written in Scripture.
Finally, John reminds us that Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is the message that God speaks to us. So any interpretation we come up with from the Bible that goes against who Jesus was and how He lived has to be regarded with the utmost suspicion.
When last did you read your Bible? When last did you talk to Jesus? Do you hold what the preacher says on Sunday against what you are reading the rest of the week?
Engage with the Word of God.
[There is a super helpful app i sometimes use called YouVersion which gives you a daily reading and commentary or reflection if you want it]
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#4: Reconnect your brain.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was He responded by saying we should love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and MIND.
It’s almost as if He wanted us to use it. Oh wait, no, it’s exactly that He wants us to use it. Which makes it so completely frustrating when you see so many people who call themselves christians who act, speak or live as if there needs to be this massive disconnect between our faith and our brains.
If there is a God and if God did create the world and if God is all-powerful and all-knowing and all of those things we say God is, then we don’t need to be scared that people using their brains is going to be a threat to God.
This is particularly prevalent in arguments on social media where a christian will jump on and argue against some point being made and the sum of their argument will be: The bible says so. They won’t be able to tell you where the bible says so or argue using scripture to back up why they believe what they believe but dropping the words ‘The bible says so’ and then running and hiding behind a tree are often the entire argument some christians seem to have.
We don’t need to know all the things and i think followers of Jesus would gain a lot of credibility if we admitted, ‘Well actually I don’t know the answer to that one’ a lot more.
i have pretty much no working knowledge about how a plane flies. i think i get the gist of it, but most of the faith i have when it comes to climbing on an airplane is my knowledge and experience that most of the time they don’t fall out of the sky.
Some of the aspects of my faith are like they – they work and i have experience and knowledge that they work, but i don’t fully understand them. But the things i can understand or seek to understand i tend to put a lot of work into – reading the bible, reading books, having conversations – my faith in Jesus is the most important thing in my life and so i tend to do the work there.
Another huge help to me when it comes to matters of faith is friends who have done a different sort of work. So the other day i am reading someone’s thoughts about a particular bible thing and it doesn’t feel right to me and so i drop my friend Sean a message [he is a theologian and has studied greek and hebrew and reads commentaries for fun – weirdo!] to get a more educated original-document opinion and sure enough he confirms my suspicions and adds to my knowledge in that area.
God gave us a brain and wants us to use it. We are called to love God not just with our hearts [our passion and our compassion and feeling] or our strength [our bodies and time and energy] but also with our minds.
Which is why it is so confusing that rather than encouraging critical thinking and questions, the church too often [with exceptions, thankfully!] closes down questions and has a ‘Just believe because we said so’ kind of approach, which is really not helpful and has caused a lot of harm and even been responsible for abuse.
Faith is not the absence of doubt, but rather is required due to the presence of doubts. But it’s not a blind belief that disconnects the mind and says, “I’ll just go with this!” Rather, it is a belief that says, “I don’t fully understand this now, but I get it enough to hold tightly to it while I try to figure it out some more.”
Are you loving the Lord your God with all of your mind? How about some of it? Does the church you are a part of encourage you or invite you to question/challenge/wrestle/engage with what they tell you, and if not, why are you still there?
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#5: Learn to read before and after your favourite verse:
The Bible has been used to justify some pretty horrific things [see Crusades, Apartheid, slavery etc…] but the interesting thing with each one of those examples is that if the people doing them asked the question, ‘Am I loving my neighbour as myself?’ the answer would have been an easy and equivocal ‘No!’ which would have been a fairly easy one given that is part of what Jesus says is the greatest commandment. Although, to be fair, if they had asked, ‘Is this loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength?’ the answer would have also been fairly easy.
Context matters. If you pull a verse out of the Bible that goes against the general meaning and narrative of the Bible story then chances are you are doing it wrong.
My favourite of them all [not!] must be Jeremiah 29 but only verse 11 because that’s the one that makes God sound like my personal genie:
‘For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord,
“plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’
Yay! God wants me to be healthy and have a big car and a big house and go on overseas trips and God will always find me a personal parking space near the door of the supermarket.
What if we dropped one verse back and then read a little bit longer.
‘This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”’
It is so strange to me that people quoting Jeremiah 29.11 never ever mention the part about ‘seeking Me with all of your heart’ or the fact that this was a word that God gave to God’s people who were in captivity. Are you in captivity? And if not, can we blanketly just assume God meant it for us? If so, are we taking all the harsh and angry words God had for God’s people in captivity and applying them to us as well?
Am I saying that God doesn’t have plans for us? Not at all. Are they individual plans [when this word was for a nation?] Not as sure about that. And can we wield it as many people do to assume we will be free from harm and bad things? And if so, does this passage work for those who are living in townships or war zones?
We saw this demonstrated probably most definitively with the release of that awful book, ‘The Prayer of Jabez’ which focused on a prayer that one man made to God in the Old Testament. We read in 1 Chronicles 4.10:
‘Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.’
And the ‘enlarge my territory’ theology was born and many people – as evidenced by their testimonies, in the book and in other places – used it as a kind of genie-in-the-sky mantra to pull the handle of prayer and wait for the giant slot machine God in the sky to pay out.
Just one verse earlier though, we find a little bit more information which no ‘Prayer of Jabez disciples’ ever seemed to quote:
Jabez was more honourable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez,[c] saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.”
He was more honourable than his brothers. Was that a prerequisite? Maybe. Is it important? Possibly.
But for me the key with this [and pretty much most theology] – the Prayer of Jabez ideology seemed to work for rich western people [who many times couldn’t see that white/first world privilege more than God was responsible for their ‘blessing’] but not for the person being stoned for being a believer or those loving God but living in abject poverty with little to no territory at all.
I do think it’s okay to hold on to individual verses and be encouraged by them. [Give me Psalm 34.18 any day – we wouldn’t need this one if Jeremiah 29.11 meant what so many thought it did!] But it is crucial to understand where that verse fits into its chapter and book and into the holistic story being told in the bible in prose and poetry and song and prophecy and revelation.
And ask good questions. If this was said to a nation, can I take it on as an individual? If this was one man’s prayer in the Old Testament, does it apply to me today? And if so, how come I don’t take on all of Job’s prayers which there are a lot more of and which would sell a whole lot less books:
‘May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’
That day – may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it.’
Context is crucial. And when in doubt, hold it against the life and teachings of Jesus and the command to love God and neighbour with everything in you, and if it holds up against that you might be okay.
Learn to read before and after your favourite verse.
[For the next 5 Tips, click here]