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My Life-Changing Discovery

My Life-Changing Discovery

I now know my heavenly Father loves me, unconditionally!  My last blog post disclosed my struggle to understand how God could love a wretch like me.  I accepted Christ as Savior in my teens, repented for my self-centered 20s, launched a Christian ministry in my 30s, and watched the Lord do miracles ever since.  Yet along the way I lost touch with the fundamental premise that undergirds our faith – the Agape love of my Father for His children.

Yes, it’s possible to dedicate your life to serving the Lord yet feel at times like a spiritual orphan.  Maybe it’s easier to believe Jesus loves you enough to die for you when you grow up with parents who would die for you.  Working for love rather than resting in it is an understandable consequence of a loveless upbringing.  Our acts of service, if done for love and not from love, can actually be an impediment to intimacy.

Feedback from my last blog post showed I was not alone, even among those I assumed never doubted how God felt about them.  Through Christian brothers moved by my confession and the Holy Spirit, the Lord revealed the secret to knowing His love…

Simply Draw Closer to Him Because God is Love

If someone loves you (and God does) but you stay far away from them, you’re eventually going to stop sensing their love.  A loving relationship requires communication, time, attention, and honesty.  Doing things for them (like ministry in my case) doesn’t help us feel their love.  Serving God at a distance makes us a servant, not a child of a loving Father.

In other words, not grasping God’s love for me was entirely my fault – obviously not His.  He has always been a flawless Father to me, but I wasn’t being a great son.  I love the Lord and worked tirelessly to please Him.  However, Jesus does not need me to do anything for Him.  He’s perfectly capable of accomplishing His will without me.  What my Father wants is a relationship, yet the more confident I became in how to carry out my ministry responsibilities the less reliant I became on Him.  If I had been moving closer rather than (unintentionally) pulling away, I wouldn’t have started to wonder whether God loved me.

My years of attempting to understand and sense God’s love for me was an exercise in futility.  In the case of a wife or child, we don’t sit around trying to figure out whether they love us.  Instead, we engage and experience love relationally, giving and receiving.  Likewise, our relationship with the Father should be experiential and reciprocal, but I wasn’t doing my part.  He pursued me relentlessly through countless revelations of His love and mercy, while I cluelessly hoped I’d eventually realize how God felt about me if I worked hard enough for Him.  Those blinders kept me from experiencing the joy of a relationship with my Father and His remarkable gifts.  I knew I was saved, but often lost the joy of salvation, forgiveness, and grace.  I shared the Gospel occasionally, but not recognizing the enormity of God’s love quelled my enthusiasm for bragging about my amazing Father.

I no longer need to pursue or wonder about God’s love because I’ve always had it.  From now on, my focus will be on relationship with my Father and abiding in His love – decreasing my distance through deeper conversations and dependence.  When I fail, as I will, to be Mary and not Martha or the Prodigal Son and not the Older Brother then my response will be pursuit of a closer relationship with Jesus.  I won’t attempt to feel or earn God’s love, like Martha and the Prodigal’s brother, by working harder to serve or obey.  Love should instigate service and obedience, not the inverse.  Likewise, repentance should follow from love, not be a precondition for it.

How Churches Can Inhibit Knowing God’s Love

If my temptation was to seek reassurance of my Father’s love by doing more for Him, then a pastor could be tempted to judge their worth and God’s opinion of them based on their church’s “success”.  The search for security and fulfillment in ministry not only damages that leader’s personal relationship with God but creates incentives to develop strategies and processes that insert a wedge between Jesus and those they serve.  For example, a homeless outreach director knows donations hinge on growth in transactional metrics like the number of individuals and meals served.  Those metrics encourage decreasing time spent with each person and increasing dependence on the ministry for handouts.  In that case, dignity and relationship-building suffer – with the ministry and with Jesus.  Likewise, a pastor concerned about church growth or survival may emphasize loyalty and engagement in church activities over biblical imperatives (like discipleship, evangelism, and compassion) that would drive away “cultural Christians” but strengthen everyone else’s relationship with the Lord.

Experiencing and promoting Agape with Jesus means surrendering everything, even our ministries, if they interfere with that relationship.  My life verse for over 30 years has been Acts 20:24 – “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me – the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”  If those tasks became more important than communion with the Father, then I wasn’t following the first part of Acts 20:24 – placing too much value on my life and ministries.  We must be willing to let go, yet many pastors cling to the churches they have worked so hard to build.  Only when we put our relationship with God and the relationships others have with Him above our personal welfare and work will we be willing to endure the costs of discipleship.  For a pastor, that cost includes risking job security and survival of the church by daring to equip and deploy disciples in today’s consumeristic culture where it’s far easier to attract and retain churchgoers.

When I started Meet The Need over two decades ago, my only motive was to pay forward my Father’s love to those in need of help and hope.  Church planters typically feel the same way at first, but once they have more to lose (as membership, buildings, budget, and staff grow) they begin to value the ministry itself more and can lose sight of the initial vision.  In my case, the duration and impact of my ministries, professional and personal, exceeded my wildest dreams and boldest prayers.  That “success” became an impediment to my relationship with my Father.  As my confidence in my capabilities and the number of stakeholders counting on Meet The Need grew, I became more distant and uncertain about God’s love for me.  From this point forward, my ambition is not ministry growth, but growing closer to God and helping others do the same before He welcomes me home.

By the same token, church leaders should be willing to walk away or repent (and reform) if they’ve allowed “church” to become the focus, prioritizing loyalty to church over intimacy with God, hindering the congregation’s understanding of God’s love for them.  That dynamic is commonplace in American churches who subscribe to the prevailing “Invite/Involve/Invest” growth model, and occurs whenever a pastor or leadership team…

  • assumes responsibility for duties intended to be shared by churchgoers
  • reduces evangelism to inviting those who don’t worship Jesus to worship services
  • elevates leaders such that dependence and reverence is drawn away from the Lord
  • never confronts long-time members who show no evidence of life transformation
  • makes joining the church the first order of business after conversion or baptism
  • encourages advocacy for and allegiance to a particular denomination
  • equips members with more church marketing tools than discipleship tools
  • tracks and proudly reports increases in transactional metrics like nickels and noses
  • pushes attendance and membership classes more than personal spiritual disciplines
  • develops strategies to grow the church that don’t include disciples making disciples
  • centralizes around buildings/events rather than empowering Kingdom “employees”
  • facilitates “cheap grace” and a “free pass to heaven” without sanctification
  • presents a diluted and distorted picture of God’s love (e.g. what He can do for you) which could make people distrust God’s love if life doesn’t turn out as “planned”
  • won’t consider local ministry opportunities that could conflict with church activities
  • hesitates to engage in poverty alleviation initiatives that could divert resources or distract attention from building campaigns
  • fosters unhealthy codependency by providing for all member wants and needs
  • instead of disintermediating, positions spiritual “fathers” in place of our Father
  • treats members as “customers” by catering (to preferences) more than challenging
  • practices conditional love by requiring membership to receive any assistance
  • deemphasizes the Holy Spirit, ostensibly to conceal the power each of us possesses
  • implies the “body of Christ” is a place, not God’s children who embody the Kingdom
  • urges members to stay or volunteer at the church rather than releasing for ministry
  • speaks of the church’s will as if it were God’s will, when that’s a matter between the Lord and each Christ-follower
  • enables members to identify primarily as a member of a particular denomination or church, not as a Christ-follower or child of our Father
  • lets churchgoers consider attending, giving, serving, and inviting to church to be the full extent of their Kingdom expectations and obligations, largely exempt from GC3 (Great CommandmentGreat CommissionGreat Calling)

Each of the above constructs repairs the curtain Jesus tore, inserting “church” between man and God.  Dependence on pastors decreases reliance on our Father.  Proximity becomes distance and our understanding of God’s love gradually diminishes.

It’s Your Turn…

Do you agree that the closer your relationship is with your heavenly Father, the greater your confidence will be about His feelings for you?  Has your past or current experience with churches helped or hindered your absolute assurance that God loves you?

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