Loving God More

Loving God is an interesting thing. Many Christians think that they love God simply because they say that they love God. But loving God surely has to be more than just an affirmation. It’s too easy just to say it.

I can say that I love someone without it really being true.

When Jesus was asked to name the greatest of all of the commandments in the Bible, He said: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37). He identified this as the first (in priority) and greatest of all of the commandments that God has given us.

We are to love God with every fiber of our being. Loving God is of no little importance.

But how to do it is the issue.

How can we love God more?

This morning I read this passage which sheds some light on the subject. Jesus said: To whom little is forgiven, the same loves little (Luke 7:47).

Loving God begins with understanding just how much we have been forgiven. Without a proper understanding of our indebtedness we will never love Him the way we should.

The event that led up His statement was a dinner to which Jesus had been invited. During the meal a woman who possessed a less than stellar reputation came into the room and began to act rather strangely.

A brief explanation will help us understand the situation. When guests visited a home they would be greeted with a kiss on the check similar to the custom of some cultures today.

Then because of the hot climate some provision would be made to have the dusty feet of the guests washed before they reclined on low-lying cushioned “couches” or mats arranged around a central table. Depending on the exact arrangement of the mats, it was possible for the feet of another guest to be a little too close to your nose. Not a pleasant thought if their feet had not been washed.

Apparently the normal customs were not provided at this particular dinner.

Back to the woman and her strange behavior. The story says that she began to wash and dry the feet of Jesus. Nothing too strange at this point – these were accepted norms in the culture. It would not have been unusual for the other guests, if they were not paying close attention, to assume that she was one of the house servants.

But she went beyond what was expected and began to kiss his feet and to anoint them with a fragrant oil. Definitely not normal behavior.

If the other guests, however, were paying attention they would have noticed something unusual in the demeanor of the woman. She was in deep anguish of soul. The text says that she stood at His feet behind Him weeping: and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wipe them with the hair of her head (Matthew 7:38). Definitely not normal behavior.

That brings us to the question: What produced this unusual action?

The clue is in the words of Jesus: To whom little is forgiven, the same loves little (Luke 7:47).

This woman was not just a sinner – she was a sinner who had been forgiven. And she understood the magnitude of her forgiveness. She understood that she had sinned greatly and that God had forgiven her greatly. This was no little thing to her.

Her love for Jesus sprang out of her understanding of her forgiveness.

The same will be true in our lives. When we understand our forgiveness it will lead us to not only say that we love God, but to demonstrate our love the way this woman demonstrated her love.

Those who understand just how much they have been forgiven by God will be the ones who Love God More and it will be reflected in their behavior.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Sometimes Forgiveness is Hard

This morning, as I enjoyed my cup of coffee on the deck, I read an article about the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky issue. The title was Penn State Doesn’t Get to Decide JoePa’s Legacy: I Know. It was written by 52 year old columnist Mike Wise. Mike is not only a writer; he’s also a survivor of child abuse who has decided to no longer be silent. You can read his entire article here. It’s powerful.

For most of us from PA, Penn State football is big. Even if you’re not a football fan in PA you know the name Joe Paterno. And now we all know the infamous name Jerry Sandusky.

Jerry Sandusky got what he deserved – 30-60 years in prison. He will die there. But what about JoePa? What does (did – he died in 2012) he deserve? We’re still struggling to determine exactly what Joe Paterno’s legacy should look like. This month during a game against Temple Penn State honored him on the 50th anniversary of his first game as head coach at Penn State. It only served to further divide the community.

And we’re growing weary. We’ve lived with the scandal for too long. We’re tired of hearing about it. We want to move on. But it’s still there staring us in the face. And we know that the victims will never be able to move on from it.

It was obvious to me as I read the article that Mike has struggled – and is still struggling to move on from something that happened 40 years ago. My heart goes out to him. But I can’t walk in his shoes or understand his pain – thank God I’ve never been there.

And that brings me to forgiveness. Sometimes forgiveness is hard.

Forgiving is one of the most difficult things that Christians have been asked to do. Especially when someone has hurt you as deeply as Jerry Sandusky hurt his victims – as deeply as Mike Wise was hurt.

But not forgiving can never be an option.

Choosing not to forgive will destroy the fabric of your soul. It will eat at your heart as surely as cancer eats at your body.

When it comes to forgiveness, God asks us to walk the difficult road. He asks us to do what goes against every inclination and desire of our being. He asks us to do what is often humanly impossible; to do what is possible only by the grace of God. Forgive the Offender.

The Bible is clear that there are consequences for not forgiving.

When you choose not to forgive you are choosing to exclude yourself from God’s forgiveness (Matthew 6:15, Mark 11:25 – this has nothing to do with salvation but everything to do with cleansing, fellowship and growing in Christ).

When you choose not to forgive you are choosing to bring contamination into your own soul (Hebrews 12:15).

When you choose not to forgive you are choosing to defile those you love the most (Hebrews 12:15).

When you choose not to forgive you are choosing to reject the example of Christ (Luke 23:34).

When you choose not to forgive you are choosing to place yourself under the judgment of God (Matthew 18:35)

Mike Wise doesn’t know it, but his struggles in life weren’t just the result of someone abusing him. Those results would have been bad enough, but they were compounded by his lack of forgiveness of the offender.

I’m not saying it is easy – it isn’t. It’s hard. Perhaps the hardest thing that you will ever have to do. But the alternative is even worse.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Have We Forgotten Who We Are?

One of the hot-button issues in our culture (the United States) is the debate on immigration. The failure of our government to tackle a comprehensive policy on immigration has only served to intensify the problem. Ignoring problems only makes them worse. Let’s be fair to our current crop of politicians: this is not a new issue – it is one that has been ignored for a very long time by people of every political persuasion.

The Immigration debate has, however, raised an interesting question: Have we forgotten who we are? We tend to divide the population between immigrants and non-immigrants. But that’s a false division. We are a nation of immigrants. Even those we call Native Americans were from someplace else. The only difference is one of time – when did your ancestors arrive on these shores? Being a fifth generation American does not make you any different from a first generation American.

From early in our history the world recognized our unique status as a nation of immigrants. Imprinted on the pedestal of Lady Liberty is the famous poem by Emma Lazarus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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I’ve Been Blown Away – And it Wasn’t Good

Have you ever had one of those experiences in life that just blew you away? It made your head spin and you felt your chest getting tight? It happened to me recently. I like to think that when it comes to my emotions I keep things even – not too high, not too low. But this one messed with my mind and my emotions.

First a little background. Around eight years ago I became the pastor of Schuylkill Valley Bible Chapel. When I moved into my office there were a few boxes that I never got around to unpacking. I put them in the closet in my office and shut the door. Problem solved. They weren’t crucial; mostly filled with odds and ends.

Two weeks ago I decided it was time to unpack the boxes and free up the space in the closet. When I finally reached the bottom of the pile I discovered a box that hadn’t been opened in more than ten years. Inside were old high school and college yearbooks. I pulled out the first yearbook I saw; it was from my freshman year in college and I began a stroll down memory lane. It was fun looking at friends that I had known forty years ago and wondering what they had done with their lives and where they were today.

Then I came to one picture. It was a picture of a good friend from college days. I’ll call him Matt. Matt was one of those guys who just stood out from the crowd. He was talented, handsome, and popular. But there was something else; something about Matt that was even more important than all of that. In a Bible college filled with Christian students he stood out as godly. If anyone was going to accomplish something for God, Matt was the guy. Or so we all thought.

That’s when I did something that I wish I had never done. I decided to Google Matt’s name. I was curious. Was he the pastor of a mega church? Had he had become an evangelist preaching to overflow crowds? Perhaps he was a missionary reaching thousands of unreached people with the gospel. What I found blew me away – and not in a good way.

Without getting into a lot of detail I found that Matt is on his third marriage and is currently serving a six year sentence in a federal penitentiary for conning people out of almost half a million dollars. At least one business went bankrupt because of his con and many more people lost money they could not afford to lose. He took advantage of people and violated their trust.

There was more on the internet but some of it seemed to be gossip. At least I couldn’t verify more than what I’ve said. But that’s enough. My friend Matt, one of the godliest young men I have ever known is a con artist. A cheat. A liar. My heart sinks even as I write these words. I want to say it isn’t so. Something’s not right. But the FBI report is there for anyone to read. He’s listed on the penitentiary web page.

I’m still struggling to process all of this. I want to tell myself that something terrible must have happened in his life that caused him to act the way he did. Maybe he suffered a head trauma that changed his personality – it’s happened before. I want to justify his behavior.

I’ve thought a lot about Matt the past two weeks. I’ve wondered if finding those old yearbooks was a God thing. I’ve wondered if I should take something away from this besides a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m still processing it.

In my effort to make sense of what I discovered I’ve thought a lot about grace. I’ve thought about the fact that God has shown so much grace to me in my life. Without His grace I could easily have done what Matt did, or worse. I’ve thought about the truth that what Matt needs right now is grace – from God and from me. I know that what he did was wrong but I also know that there is grace for the sinner.

I’ve also thought a lot about forgiveness. Matt needs to find forgiveness from those he hurt and from God. On the other hand I’m still struggling in this area. Somehow, and this surprised me, I’ve felt betrayed. Not that Matt owed me anything because he didn’t – forty years is a long time. I just expected more. Maybe I got my eyes on the man instead of on God. What I know is that I need to look into my soul and find forgiveness – not for Matt’s sake but for my own.

Pray for my friend Matt. I decided to reach out to him after forty years – maybe that’s what God wanted all along. So I wrote to him because he needs a friend and because he needs to know that grace and forgiveness are still available. Maybe I can help him find what he needs.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Forgiveness is Difficult

One of the most difficult things for any of us to do is to forgive. Forgive the person who has gossiped about you. Forgive the person who has lied to you. Forgive the bully. Forgive the cheat. Forgive the adulterer. Forgiving is not easy.

Forgiveness is uniquely a Christian responsibility. I don’t know of any place in scripture that tells a non-Christian to forgive. But it does teach Christians that they have a moral and spiritual obligation to forgive. The question that often runs through our minds is: Why should I forgive? That’s the right question and God has given us the answer. You should forgive because you have been forgiven. That’s one of the lessons of the parable Christ told in Matthew 18 when the disciples asked Him, Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? (Matthew 18:21). In the parable one man who owed a rather large debt was forgiven but he was unwilling to forgive the small debt someone else owed to him. The relevant statement in the parable is in verse 33, should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you? That’s the issue we are faced with. God has had pity (mercy) on us and forgiven us much, yet we are unwilling to forgive our brother on smaller issues. We should forgive because we have been forgiven – much.

Another part of the answer to the question Why should I forgive? is that forgiveness says I have no interest in getting even. We have to admit that we don’t forgive because we secretly (sometimes not so secretly) hope that the person who has hurt us will be hurt in return. We want to get even. We want them to feel our pain. But as a Christian that is not an option for you. That is not your domain.  Dr. Roger Moore, Vice-President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has written, When we forgive, we are confessing that vengeance is God’s (Rom. 12:19). We don’t need to exact justice from a fellow believer because justice has already fallen at the cross. We also don’t need to exact vengeance from an unbeliever because they are already under God’s judgment. Our hope for them should be that they come to Christ and find forgiveness, not judgment.

When you forgive someone you are saying that you can trust God. That He knows what is best for everyone involved and that He will handle it better than you can. Again, Dr. Moore says it well. You don’t have to store up bitterness, and you don’t have to find ways of retaliation for what’s been done to you. You can trust a God who is just.

And that’s the bottom line for the Christian. To forgive says that you trust God; that you can put it all into His hands. Not to forgive says that you don’t trust God – you don’t trust Him to do what is right; you don’t trust Him to take care of you. In reality forgiveness is more about you and God than it is about you and the person who hurt you.

Forgiveness is not easy. It is what God has asked you to do.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Penn State, Herman Cain and Us

The news the past several weeks has been anything but encouraging – a presidential candidate accused of sexual misconduct; a beloved college coach with an impeccable reputation whose legacy has now been tainted by scandal. Volumes have been written by both the secular and Christian media examining these issues from the perspective of the victims, the perpetrators and society at large.

But there is a fundamental question that still needs to be addressed and that is: How should we as Christians respond to these events?  How do we view the people involved?  Many have rushed to judgment before all of the evidence is known. On the other side of the issue are those who have rushed to defend the involved without considering the pain of the victims. For the Christian there are three words that should define our position: Compassion, Grace and Forgiveness.

Compassion can be difficult for us, especially compassion for the offender. It is certainly not a normal response. But it is the right response for those who desire to follow Christ. Compassion because Christ exemplified compassion for us (Matthew 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34). Compassion for those wounded by another’s actions (Luke 10:33). Compassion even for the sinner (Luke 15:20).

I’ve often written about grace. That’s because it has such an important impact on life. Grace is receiving what we do not deserve – it is a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). At the same time grace does not negate justice. God is a God of grace – He is also a God of justice. The wonder of the Christian message is that justice and grace met at the cross and were perfectly reconciled in Christ (Romans 3:23-26). As Christians we have received grace even though we deserve justice. Whether we like to admit it or not, our sin against a holy God is as disgusting and dirty as the sin committed against young boys by someone they trusted (Isaiah 64:6). And yet we have received grace. How can we who have received grace refuse it to even the vilest sinner? While we abhor the sin that has taken place and while we should do everything possible to help the victims, we cannot forget that all important word – grace.

Compassion and grace lead to forgiveness. Without forgiveness for others, even those guilty of heinous sins, we stand in jeopardy (Matthew 6:14-15). Forgiveness is only logical in light of the fact that we have been forgiven of so much (Colossians 2:13-14). Forgiveness may not be easy, but it is right (Matthew 6:9-13).

Our society is wrestling with life-changing issues. People are angry and that is understandable. The weakest in our society have been injured by people in positions of power. But anger that is not resolved will turn cancerous and destroy the soul (Hebrews 12:15). The only hope is that anger will turn into compassion; compassion will result in grace; and grace will lead to forgiveness. That’s the example of Christ. That is the difference in the Christian message and life. That is the essence of the gospel.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

I Can’t Do That!

What is the most difficult thing that you have ever had to do? I’ve been thinking about difficult things. Not just things that are hard to do, but things that are physically exhausting, heart-wrenching, spiritually depleting or emotionally draining. The kind of thing that, when it’s over, you say I don’t EVER want to go through that again! We’ve all had those experiences in life. Things that we would never choose if we had a choice. Things that we hope we will never have to do again.

For the Christian, one of the most difficult things in life is to forgive. It’s not easy to forgive someone who has turned your life upside down; who has hurt you and left scars that run deep into your soul; who has betrayed your confidence and made a mockery of your relationship.

There has been a lot written about the subject of forgiveness and everyone has their opinions – and excuses for why they cannot forgive someone. We even have our Biblical arguments why we’re not required to forgive (IE they didn’t ask for our forgiveness; they haven’t repented yet; they violated God’s law etc. etc.). I want to focus on just one passage. It’s the same passage in which Christ taught His disciples what is commonly called The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6. In the verses immediately following the prayer, Christ said this:

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:14-15)

No mention of anyone asking for forgiveness; no mention of repentance; no sorrow for violating God’s law. Just forgiveness. In fact the passage is not directed to the violator but to the one who has been hurt. It’s all about us, not them. They are not told to seek forgiveness or to repent. We are just told to forgive. It’s our choice. We are the ones God is talking to.

And the consequences of our actions cannot be any clearer. If we forgive as God forgives (that in itself is a mind-boggling issue worthy of a separate discussion) we can expect God to forgive when we seek Him. But if we refuse to forgive the one who has hurt us, God will withhold His forgiveness from us. That’s a serious issue. Think of the potential impact that can have on your life: unanswered prayer, lack of power with God, broken fellowship with God and God’s people, no victory, hindrance of spiritual growth.

We’re dealing with an extremely powerful issue here. And it all comes down to whether or not you are willing to forgive as you have been forgiven. You can make all of the excuses and rational arguments you want, it’s a simple, straight-forward issue. Are you will to forgive or not? Of course they don’t deserve your forgiveness! That’s just the issue. You don’t deserve God’s forgiveness but every time you come to Him asking, He gives it (Matthew 18:21ff). Now you have the opportunity to let someone see God in you.

It’s time to forgive the prodigal son or daughter. It’s time to forgive the offending spouse. It’s time to forgive the friend who has betrayed you. It’s always time to forgive. It may be the most difficult thing that you will ever have to do, but it’s the right thing to do. And by God’s grace (which is the reason He forgives you) you can do it.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve