Friday, October 29, 2010

God's Love: Part X, "Experience the Depth"

“And I pray that you, having been rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

It is known that in the deepest, darkest oceans lie the scariest monsters of the sea. No one knows all that lurks there. Thousands of miles down under where there is no light, swim creatures with fangs and gruesome fish that eat their prey from the inside out. It is not a place most of us would want to go, given the opportunity.

Ironically, if we’re honest, almost every woman feels a bit that way about her heart. Deep unchartered waters of our past, insecurities that grip our present, painful things we have been through, and the sin we have clung to—not to mention all the labels we carry from these things. Oh how we fear exploring the depths; and we most certainly wouldn’t take our men there to look around, maybe not even our best friend. Heck, we don’t even want to go there ourselves!

If they knew the true me, they would surely run! We feel we are just too much for anyone.

Even those who have joined the women’s lib movement, the one who appears so sure of herself and in control. Both the false confidence and the liberalism are often a mask to the scars that fuel her control and need to compete. Scars that hide deep below the surface.

Our depths seem so dark because of the weightiness it holds. Others have mishandled us, and we in turn have mishandled ourselves. The sin and darkness and all the labels we carry feel like the truest things about us. Who could possibly love us enough to go there? We believe the depths of our hearts may even be too deep for God’s love to reach.

Some of the things we’ve been through, and some of the things we’ve done (or fear we’re capable of doing), feel like hell to us.

But what if…just maybe…God’s love is deeper than the deepest hell?

In Job chapter eleven, we find the deep things of God are described as deeper than hell. That would include His love. The Psalmist in chapter one-hundred-thirty-nine exclaims that even if he makes his bed in hell, lo and behold, God is there! And if God is there, His love is also.

Jesus personally knows the greatest depths; He’s been there. He took on all our sin through the cross. He prophesies of His own death, and how just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so the Son of Man would be in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40) Because He conquered death (and sin) by rising to life again, and furthermore ascending to heaven, He holds the keys of death and hell itself. (Revelation 1:18)

Whatever dark and scary things you fear lurking in your heart, your Jesus has already been there. He has already conquered the depths of hell, the sin and shame. He holds the keys to unlock the depths of your heart and set you free.

Set us free for what? What if the sin and shame, the wounds and labels really aren’t the truest things about us?

We have heard much about original sin, but very little of original glory. If you’ve been in church much, heard the creation story, or read through all these posts on God’s love, you will remember we were created in the image of God, and that we bear His image. There was a glory about us before the marring of sin. And that glory, His image, is written on our hearts.

He longs to set us free from all that holds our heart captive so He can restore that image. But what might it mean to bear His image? To bear His image as a woman? God knows some of us have tried to make our hearts masculine to survive in this world where the male sex dominates (God’s image on his heart is marred, too.) “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” the saying goes, right? But the world needs our feminine heart.

The full explanation is too much for this post, but since we’re talking about the deepest part of our heart and about love, God’s love, we’ll concentrate on that. If the deepest, truest thing about God’s heart is love, then it stands to reason the same is true of the image He stamped upon us. He gave us the most sacred thing of all, a heart with the ability and capacity to love, and to receive love.

Not just any love, but passionate love. Love is relational, and we are relational to our very core, as God is. We, as women, are not satisfied with just any kind of love, but the kind that relentlessly pursues us and actually desires us. A love that uncovers the darkness and reveals the beauty inside. We long to be romanced, to be fully known, and to know fully. A love that woos us!

It isn’t too much to ask. In this way, we bear His image. We want this because God wants this.

“You will… find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13)

“You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes…” (Song of Solomon 4:9)

“Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’”” (Matthew 22:37)

The problem is, we’ve allowed the wounds of our life, both self and other inflicted, those dark and scary, hellacious experiences to convince us that we are too much, and not enough. That we might as well keep those places off limits because nobody, even our own self or God, can handle them or knows what to do with them. Yet we fear being found out.

We’re not willing to go there. But go there we must. It is not as scary as you might think. And we don’t have to go alone.

The same Psalm mentioned earlier also says there is nowhere we can go that His Spirit cannot follow, and no place where we can escape His presence. Jesus is able and willing to go with us to our depths, to heal our hearts and restore His image upon us. Because of His love, God will explore the unchartered waters of our heart that He might reach the dark places within us and usher us back out into the light. To heal and restore the things which were once lost or stolen. By doing so, we are freed to experience the fullness of God’s love, and to love fully in return.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

God's Love: Part IX, "Experience the Length"

“And I pray that you, having been rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Not many of us are long distance runners. For most, the very thought causes us to cringe. “No thanks!” It takes stamina and endurance, a great resistance to the elements within and without the body. A good runner must be able to endure pain, heat, cold, and resist fatigue. He or she must be able to persevere when the body urges to quit before the race is over, keeping his/her eye fixed on the prize ahead.

I don’t know many people who want to willingly put their body through such harsh conditions and training. We usually find ways to avoid this, not only physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually in our lives. Give us the easy way out.

Since we’re apt to look for the easy route, or the great escape, in some form or fashion, maybe that’s why we have a hard time believing God’s love can outlast us. Surely He’s given Himself a scapegoat. There are times we don’t love ourselves, so why on earth would He still love us?

We may understand God went to the greatest lengths any one could for another…loving us enough to give His only Son, Jesus, to die in our place for our sin. Ransom. (God’s Love:  Part IV, “Love’s Response”) But do we believe His love is just as strong for us today as the day we first believed? Do we question whether He still loves us at times?

Several years ago, I began what I like to call a “head on collision with my past.” I explained my healing journey in general terms in my testimony, “Where to Begin.” My heart was hemorrhaging from unhealed wounds of long ago, and I had developed unhealthy styles of relating to others because of those wounds. Our arch enemy had also taken liberty to fill my mind with lies in those wounded places.

God came to rescue me from my pain and from myself, giving me courage to face past abuses and other wounds, both other- and self-afflicted. He did so in order to shine His truth on each situation, and bring much needed healing. But surrendering my old habits wasn’t always easy, and owning the truths for myself was downright hard at times.

Our enemy does not want us to receive such healing and freedom, either. And some days I would almost buckle under the weight of his whispers. You’ll never make it. It’s too hard. Just give up.

I remember one particularly difficult day while the kids were at school. I was folding laundry, and keenly aware of my pain, my mess-ups with old habits, and the enemy’s voice. Finally, I sat down, exasperated. I blurted out to God, “I’m afraid Your grace will run out on me!” I couldn’t believe the sound of my own words; I wept, fearing His response.

So tenderly and lovingly He said to me, from His very Word in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace IS sufficient for you.” The easiest way to dispel a lie is with the truth! And I knew this to be true in my mind, but never believed it in my heart until that moment. In the Scripture context, Paul was describing his weakness (we all have them!), and how, as he struggled with God over it, this was God’s answer. The Lord went even further to say, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

Well, what does grace have to do with love, you might ask? Everything! Even the Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus describes grace as the “love and favor of God toward [mankind].” Meaning, we can trust that God’s grace, love, and favor will be sufficient for us, no matter our weakness!

Hebrews Chapter four takes it all a step further, describing Jesus as our great High Priest with ready access to God—and able to understand our weaknesses since He faced them all Himself, yet without sin. He is not out of touch with our reality. We can come boldly to him for help, where we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (verses 14-16)

Like a runner, God is no stranger to endurance. The phrase, His love endures forever, appears thirty-six times in the Psalms alone. Why so many? Maybe the Psalmist knew how much we’d need reminding and convincing!

In the same dictionary I mentioned earlier, endurance is described as “having the ability to last, stand pain, etc.” His love can withstand the pain of our sin and weaknesses, without wavering. Why on earth would He bother?! Because Love hopes—hopes that we will turn to Him and accept His help—hopes for you. (I Corinthians 13)

It was passionate love that fueled Jesus to his death; the greatest display and length of love. He endured the cross for you and for me. Hebrews 12:2 describes Him as enduring the cross because of the joy awaiting him. Think of it as the prize for winning a race. Jesus fixes His eyes on the prize that will bring Him the greatest joy—us—you. Whatever it takes, however long it takes, the length of God’s love will find you.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

God's Love: Part VIII, "Experience the Width"

Last week, I mentioned Paul’s prayer for us in Ephesians three, verse eighteen, that all of the followers of Jesus would experience the extravagant dimensions of God’s love. The NIV version of the Bible reads from verses sixteen through nineteen,

“I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, having been rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Since that reads like a mouthful, we’ll break it down a bit! For those of us who, by faith, have chosen the life Jesus offers (explained in “God’s Love, Part VI, “Our Response"), Christ dwells in our hearts. (it is a choice, friends; we must choose) As a result—God being the very essence of love itself and Jesus the flesh and blood example (Colossians 1:15)—like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, so are we firmly planted in His love!

The dimensions Paul spoke of concerning Christ’s love for us are four:  width, length, height, and depth. It is simply a means to show the magnitude of the vision that opens before us as we seek to comprehend such love. A love that is more vast than the deepest and widest ocean, yet without boundary!

Picture yourself in the center of that mighty ocean. Just as the water envelops you as a glove, with each dimension, so does the love of Jesus! Underneath you, all around you is the current of His love! (taken from the song, “O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus,” by Samuel Francis) You cannot move, and His love not move with you. Its compass is complete, and penetrates every fiber of our being.

Though Paul offered this vision as a whole, breaking down each dimension may help reveal more truths of God’s love, and dispel any lies from our enemy. Lies that seek to steal our believing such love and our full experience of it!

Job 11:9 tells us His love is broader, wider than the sea. Imagine a door opening that wide—wide enough to allow all of humankind to pass through. The love of God is that wide. He does not pick and choose whom He will love. He created every one of us, including you, and His love is extended to all ages, gender, races, nations, and ranks.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.” (John 3:16a) That includes all of us! Even though we have betrayed Him, and while we were still sitting in our stench, God loved us enough to send His Son to die for us. (God’s Love:  Part III, “What Happened?”) Not because He had to, but because He chose to. (Part IV, “Love’s Response")

“But God demonstrates His own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Yet, something still whispers in the heart of a woman that we are somehow, or in some way outside the scope of God’s love. (men, too, but we’re focusing on women right now) Society has dealt us a raw blow, belittling our worth. Sadly, the church has not always served us better. Our role is diminished, misunderstood, and our very creation is often viewed as an “afterthought.”

In God’s love:  Part II, “Creation’s Story,” we explored how the order of things God created grew in detail, complexity, and awe. Like a symphony, it builds and builds; a crescendo, until finally, it reaches its climax. God, having created every living thing, including Adam, assesses His handiwork and realizes it is not complete.

Enter Eve. The astonishing crescendo. The final touch of God’s masterpiece. The Crown of Creation, as she is referred to in Captivating. Paul writes that man “is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.” (1 Corinthians 11:7) You are not an afterthought.

I can hear some of us scoffing, Yeah, right. Try telling that to society and much of the church. We’ve been duped to believe we are a lesser gender, and that we were created to be man’s slave. We feel unseen, unsought, and uncertain (Captivating). With such thoughts, we either take control, or fall in a heap of worthlessness.

We must not look to a fallen world to tell us our worth. What if the part we were given in this story is much grander and vital than we’ve been made to believe? Thankfully, it is!

“When God creates Eve, he calls her an ezer kenegdo. ‘It is not good for the man to be alone, I shall make him [an ezer kenegdo]’ (Genesis 2:18 Alter). Hebrew scholar Robert Alter, who has spent years translating the book of Genesis, says that this phrase is ‘notoriously difficult to translate.’ The various attempts we have in English are ‘helper’ or ‘companion’ or the notorious ‘help meet.’ Why are these translations so incredibly wimpy, boring, flat…disappointing? What is a help meet, anyway? What little girl dances through the house singing, ‘One day I shall be a help meet’? Companion? A dog can be a companion. Helper? Sounds like Hamburger Helper. Alter is getting close when he translates it ‘sustainer beside him.’
                The word ezer is used only twenty other places in the entire Old Testament. And in every other instance the person being described is God himself, when you need him to come through for you desperately.
                Most of the contexts are life and death, by the way, and God is your only hope. Your ezer. If he is not there beside you…you are dead. A better translation therefore of ezer would be ‘lifesaver.’ Kenegdo means alongside, or opposite to, a counterpart.”
(John and Stasi Eldredge, Captivating)

WHOA. This is Eve. This is woman. This is you. And I dare say this is why God loves you. Not because He “has to.” He sees who you really are, and He longs to redeem the ezer kenegdo hidden inside.

You are not outside the scope of His love! No matter what you’ve done, no matter your background, God loves you. Jesus spread His arms “wide” enough to bear the world’s sin on the cross to ransom us. To ransom you. That is love! You need only to choose Him. (God’s Love:  Part VI, “Our Response”) Then, you will be in a position to fully experience the extravagant dimensions of His love!

Friday, October 8, 2010

God's Love: Part VII, "To Experience"

When my three girls were younger, they had a large assortment of small dolls and more accessories than you could imagine. Several large tubs full. In the world of pretending, they were inevitably drawn to create the perfect wedding, complete with the perfect bride and groom. Today, the older two love reading books with great adventure and purpose, and, more importantly to them, two characters destined to fall in love.

As a child, I was more apt to be riding bikes, climbing trees, and racing the guys in the neighborhood on my 4-wheeler (except when I was being mommy to my family of Cabbage Patch Kids)! But I had a strong affinity for horses. I was drawn to their strength, and daydreamed often about the intense love a girl and her horse seem to share. I longed for that experience. I ached for it.

Whether we were a girly-girl or a tomboy, our desire for romance found a way to express itself when we were young. Now that we are women, it finds its way into the movies we love and the stories we enjoy. It’s the sigh of our hearts in The Proposal when Andrew realizes his love for Margaret, and when Edward returns for Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. It is Jack and Rose in Titanic out on the bow of the ship.
I’m well aware that for most of us, our hearts have been mishandled, maybe even abused and misused. We may have buried this longing, or even abandoned it altogether. But it cannot be fully silenced. Can you at least see that you long for this?

We want to know that we are the center of someone’s attention. Do you see me? Do you delight in me? We want to know fully, and to be fully known. To know beyond any shadow of doubt that we are, indeed, loved. This is written on our hearts by the One who created us in His image! 

While man was intended to love a woman in this way, the fulfillment of our longings for romance doesn’t have to wait for a man. God wants us to know that HE loves us this way! He wants you to know that you are the apple of His eye. (Psalm 17:8, Zechariah 2:8) Yes, He will sometimes love us, romance us through a man, but He also longs to bring this to you Himself.

Now, in order to understand this and embrace it, we must remove the religious veil and see the heart of God as Lover. The Lover of our Souls. Jesus refers to himself as the Bridegroom (Matt. 9:15; Matt. 25:1-10; John 3:29), which simply means fiancĂ©. “Lover.” This metaphor is an invitation to the kind of relationship and intimacy Jesus longs for with us. (Stasi Eldredge, Captivating) If your heart fills with question and hesitancy in this, as mine once did (given my wounded heart), it just means there is healing for your heart here.

For most of my life, I felt like I had to be doing everything “right” in order for God to love me. Consequently, I lived in a hopeless state of believing I was a constant disappointment! Sometimes we feel He loves us because He “has to.”

A few years ago, during a time I struggled to understand how God loves me, I brought my anguish before the Lord. In the quiet with my eyes closed, He gave me a vision of myself as a newborn baby. Having felt the intense, almost inexplicable love for my own children as newborns, I could sense Him smiling in deep delight over me then. Pictures of my childhood flashed, and once again I could feel the love of God smiling over me.

Then He brought to mind a picture of myself in the present, as a woman. It felt as though the lights had gone out. I had no problem believing He loved me when I was a baby and even as a young child…but as a woman? How could He love me the same now? With all my failures and weaknesses?

Paul prays for us in Ephesians 3:18 that we would be able to understand the love of God. How high and deep, how wide and long it is for us! God wants us to believe His love endures all things, even our failures and weaknesses, and that it will never fail us even then. (1 Corinthians 13:7, 8)

But how will we know?

To understand God’s love is to experience His love. All day long my husband can tell me that he loves me; but if he never puts actions to his words that show his love for me, if there is never any experience of his love, then I cannot possibly believe or understand it.

Our God longs to heal us and mature us through His love into mature women (and men) who actually know Him. He wants us to experience verses like I mentioned in my personal testimony (click here to read): “Therefore I am going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her” (Hos. 2:14). To experience what it means to be quieted by His love, as I did through a time of restless questioning (click here for more). And, “you have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride.” (Song of Solomon 4:9)

Oh how we long for this!

Our Enemy does not want us to experience God’s love in new and fresh, tangible ways. He tells us that we must be productive and useful to be loved by God (and sadly, even by others, especially in the church). Shame exaggerates our hearts, and we are pressed to believe that we are not enough, or even that we are too much to be loved. So we settle for less through duty and productivity, believing obedience is all we have left. We are convinced that understanding God’s love is simply an acquired knowledge of the mind, and we shut down our hearts.

“Faithful obedience to God is vital, but it is not all God draws us to. It is not sufficient for our healing, no more than doing the laundry is sufficient for a marriage. And it will not be enough in the long run to carry us through. The persecuted Church is vast today. More Christians are being martyred in our lifetime than in any other time in church history. It is not obedience that is carrying our brothers and sisters—unwavering, steadfast, eyes ablaze—to their deaths. It is holy, fierce passion. Hearts afire.”

“What would it be like to experience for yourself that the truest thing about His heart toward yours is not disappointment or disapproval but deep, fiery, passionate love? This is, after all, what a woman was made for.”
(Stasi Eldredge in Captivating)

We are no longer children, and we’ve put away childish things such as our dolls and toys. But we are called to be childlike—there’s a difference. Our longings as a little girl are not far off base. They are not so foolish after all. In fact, they are telling us the key to experiencing God.

These longings cause us to ache; to ache for the love we were made for. And to ache is to be alive; it is a good thing. We must ask Jesus to come for us here in these longings. To rescue us, to romance our hearts. Keep pressing, keep asking. Love is His specialty—and He wants to experience it with you. New. Fresh. Everyday.