Learning to Love God

Warning: This is long, so get a cup of coffee or something before you start.

I’ve had a lot of thoughts going through my head these past several weeks, mostly stemming from two catalysts. First, after a not-so-successful youth group, it was brought to my attention that my passion and excitement may not be all that evident to many of my youth. Second, I began to suspect that very few of my youth had much of an understanding of being able to interact and hear from God.

The first catalyst called into question where my passions and excitement lie. I was forced to realize that in some ways, it was the witness of my own Christian life that was hurting my kids’ ability to catch onto the importance and excitement of things we talk about in youth group. It made me wonder whether I was more passionate about the ministry I was doing, or the Person on whose name I testify. All of this really set me off-kilter for a few days, but was thankfully calmed down by some very direct and reassuring, if not entirely enlightening, responses from God. If nothing else, it was good to hear Him be so clear in speaking to me, even if He wasn’t ready to answer everything yet. In the end, I was still left with the question about where my passion stems from.

The second catalyst came through a few different conversations and lessons, but in general, I realized that most of the youth that I talked with couldn’t really come up with language addressing much of an ongoing relationship with the Lord, or being able to articulate who He is to them on a personal level. It seemed like they really didn’t even have much of a grasp of the personal, relational aspects of following Jesus. Now, a lot of my language and experience comes from an evangelical perspective, and I try to be really careful with how I talk about this “personal relationship with Jesus” stuff. In some ways, I think it is way overdone and is a bit of a cliché. However, I am fully convinced that interacting with Jesus daily is necessary for ongoing spiritual growth. Simply being a part of the Christian community is not enough! Even better, this ongoing interaction with our Lord is not just a requirement – it’s a privilege and a blessing that we get to talk directly with the God who created us loves us, and saved us! Anyway, with all this belovedness and hearing God stuff we’ve been doing in youth group lately, I realized I might have been jumping to step 10, without noticing that most still needed repeats of steps 2.

So, this has all been percolating in my brain since sometime in February, and as I’ve gotten a sense for where the youth group is at, the urgency for starting a conversation about it has increased as well. So, as bits and pieces come to me, I’ve been adding them up, and noticing that these two issues really tend to tie together. One of the clear reassurances that God gave me, as I mentioned above, was that He’d tell me what I need when I needed it. Darn it all for not knowing everything at once! But at least I know it’s coming. Anyway, spent some time on Tuesday last week at a Benedictine monastery on a personal retreat, and this was some of the stuff I was still working on (I’ll put up a few pictures from my retreat, too.) I don’t claim to have all of this figured out yet, but here’s where my brain is right now.

Essentially, it all comes down to, what is it that makes us as Christians different? What is it about my life that shows through as being different when I teach, talk, or just hang out with kids? What needs to be present in my kids’ lives that will set them apart from their peers?

The answer lies in the two commandments that Jesus told us were most important: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind….. Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Check out Matthew 22:37-40). It must be understood that these commandments relate to two areas of the Christian life – our discipleship (spiritual growth especially), and our testimony.

Note that these commandments are NOT split between those areas. I have often seen it taught that loving God dealt with your spiritual growth, and loving your neighbor was supposed to be the testimony of what’s changed. Not so; these two cannot be split. Your love of God affects your spiritual growth, yes; if you don’t love Him, or develop your love for Him, how are you going to want to spend time listening to Him? At the same time, your love for God should also be evident to other people. If Jesus comes up in a conversation, which will people respond better to? A guy that you avoid talking about a lot, aren’t excited to discuss, and who’s work you can’t really describe? Or a guy that has completely changed your life, affects you daily, and who you can’t wait to get together with again? Your love and passion for God has a huge impact on your testimony.

While not as much an issue as I talk about this, I should point out that in the same way, loving your neighbor is as much a part of your spiritual growth as it is your testimony. The testimony part is fairly obvious, I think – we serve others because you’re a Christian, and that’s what Jesus would have us do. We grow a lot through it, too… James says that if we spent all our time hearing what Jesus says, but we don’t actually do it, our faith is worthless (James 1:22). Jesus says when we care for others, we’re actually caring for Him (Matt. 25:31-40). If so, then there are plenty of opportunities there to learn from Jesus Himself as we care for Him and the people that He explicitly says are blessed and loved by Him. Plus, Jesus said that it’s as our faith begins bearing good fruit that we’ll better understand Jesus and He’ll listen to our prayers (John 15:16). While fruit involves changes in ourselves as much as more love towards people, it still suggests that we can’t really get what Jesus has for us to learn until we start doing stuff. The list goes on.

Anyway, back to the issue at hand. If there’s one thing my church is good at, it’s loving our neighbors. We have Greatest Commandment #2 down pat, at least compared with the majority of churches. We’re experts at loving each other in the church, most of us serve the community or other needy parts of society on a regular basis, and we’re generally very hospitable to our neighbors and others that come around. It’s easy to get excited about helping others, building community, and generally seeing visible, tangible results. For the most part, the youth understand that pretty well. They’re comfortable working, are usually happy to help and serve people, and realize that loving and caring for people is a core part of being a Christian. Most of them grew up in a church that excels at that. Honestly, all of this is a lot of the reason why I loved Living Water when I first started attending – there were people as passionate about loving their neighbors as I was, if not more so.

One of the weaknesses in my church? Quite possibly, loving God. Now, I stand on shaky ground saying this, and if I heard someone else say it, I’d be one of the first to argue otherwise. There are some amazing Christians in our church, and it’s very clear that their work for the Lord comes from their love for Him. Even with some of the older members with less of an evangelical background, it’s clear that they have a deep love for Jesus. It’s definitely not just a matter of traditions.

What are lacking, however, may well be the testimonial aspects of loving God. As a congregation in our worship and prayer, I think it’s generally clear that we love God. Individually? Many of us are people who are far more comfortable talking about what God would have us do, rather than talk about how great God has been to us personally. We’re better at talking about everything surrounding Jesus than we are at talking about Jesus Himself. All the peripherals are a lot easier to grasp and describe.

For our youth, I fear the result has been that Christ has become more an idea than a real, living, present, interactive Person. They know that they are supposed to trust Jesus as their savior – from the Mennonite church, they know God has come to reconcile mankind to Him. From evangelical influences, they know that Jesus came to save them personally. Beyond that, they know that as Christians they’re supposed to learn what God wants them to do, work on being better and loving other people, and be part of the Church. Some have said they’ve experienced God, although it’s usually limited to the warm fuzzies they get during worship at camp. And when that comes up, like a recording, at least one of them will remind us that the warm fuzzies are bad.

So, where do we go from here? It seems to me that both my youth group and I need to work on loving God – for me, the visible testimony of it; for my kids, the intimate reality of it.

For my kids, they need to understand that regular communion with Jesus is both necessary and desirable. First, they need to know who Jesus is – not just in a theological way, but who He is to them personally. What has He done for them? Why are they part of the Church, following Him? Why do they love Him? More to the point, DO they love Him, or are they just following the tradition of their parents and church family?

Second, they need to hear Jesus’ invitation to them into relationship. Jesus tells us that we aren’t just servants, we’re His friends, and that we’re invited into His confidence because He loves us and He wants us to understand Him and the Father (John 15:9-15). God doesn’t want servants; He can make more of those in the blink of an eye. He was companions to walk with Him and commune with Him, to know Him intimately. As disciples, we have access to a whole lot more than just a list of Good and Bad things to do. Relationship has always been the core part of being a disciple.

Third, they need to realize that a relationship with the Lord is necessary if they’re actually going to get anywhere in this Christian business. Christians are supposed to grow in spiritual maturity and love others more, which people can often fake. But for only so long. Real love for others can only come from our love for God, and His for us (1 John 4:19), and in order for us to become spiritually mature and bear fruit as Christians, we must remain united with Christ (John 15:5).

Fourth, they need to learn how to interact with God. I can teach them plenty about why they need to talk with God. But, it’s all useless until I can help them recognize when they feel close to God, what to listen for, and how to develop and strengthen that connection. They need to know that it can and does go far beyond doing daily devotions and reading the Bible for half an hour… which several of them have tried before, with scant results and very little spiritual comfort. As Dr. Perrine (thanks, CRM!) would say, they need to learn what their God language is, and how to develop regular spiritual practices around that. They need to recognize Jesus’ life and presence around all the time, and not just in a Bible verse, sermon, or worship song! Of course, this will continue far, far beyond high school.

What’s all of this mean for me? First, I need to be better at letting my love and passion for Jesus show through. The love is there – I’m not worried about that. But that doesn’t always mean it’s evident. For example, I always love my wife. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m always excited or passionate about her. If I’m on top of things, I’ll still show my love for her by the things I do – that’s important. However, it takes an extra effort to show that I’m really glad she’s there. Otherwise, it would be easy for my actions to look more like obligation than love. It’s not necessarily faking the excitement; it’s realizing that loving her is a choice, and making her feel special like that is part of loving her. It’s similar with Jesus. I always love Jesus, but my passion for Him will vary from time to time. However, I need to always be aware of how other people perceive my relationship with Him. If I talk about Him and serve Him like it’s an obligation, people may pity me. If I can be honest about how important He is to me and how much I love Him, even when I’m frustrated with Him, have unanswered questions, or just don’t feel close to Him, hopefully people will wonder what they’re missing.

Second, we know that perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). While I’m not necessarily afraid of condemnation, I still carry a lot of fear and insecurity. How will my words be received? What do I have to do to strengthen these relationships? What if a message important to me totally flops? What if people disregard me as not having much to say? Or being too young and inexperienced? Are they still comparing me to their old youth pastor? Why aren’t I haven’t more “spiritual” conversations with people? Etc., etc., etc. This fear is a hindrance both to my own ability to live and minister faithfully, and to God’s ability to work through me. For this reason I regularly pray that my timidity be replaced by power and love (2 Tim. 1:7), but that will only happen as I move closer to Jesus and trust in what He has in store for me, and move away from my own weak self with all it’s fears and frailty. Perfect love drives out fear.

Third, I pray for a better sense of my own sin. While it sounds like a depressing thing to pray for, it’s a key part of our salvation – if we don’t know what we’re saved from, what is our salvation worth? I was reminded on Good Friday that I often don’t really grasp my own sinful nature. Cognitively, I know I’m fallen, sinful person. In my heart, though, I tend to think I’m a pretty decent guy, and while I know there’s stuff buried that I’m glad others don’t see, I’m not worried about it destroying my life. When I sin, it’s usually easy for me to recognize what it is, decide I shouldn’t be doing it, and casually accept that I’m forgiven for it. That’s usually the end of it. None of that is reassuring in light of Luke 7:36-50, where Jesus says that the sinful woman who poured perfume on His feet loved Him so much because she had been forgiven so much. If you’re not forgiven much, you won’t love much. If I’m going to love Jesus as much as I want to, I can’t just know how much I’m forgiven – I’ve got to feel it and believe it.

So, that’s where I’m at now.

And this is the longest paper I’ve written since college.

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~ by Peter on March 27, 2008.

3 Responses to “Learning to Love God”

  1. I was a youth pastor at one time and can relate, By the way, had a coke and baked potato! thanks for the heads up. I know you are not supposed to make long comments, but feel the need to do so here. So, here it goes.

    I had trouble when i first started as a youth pastor and had the same trouble. My passion was not being transfered to my flock, and in a onversation with my pastor the sulution came to me because of a direct question he asked me. “Why are you passionate?”

    I had very personal reason for my passion. You see, everyones passion is different, god does not do the exact same for everyone even though he will.

    What he was getting at was “what made God personal to me?” So I went and prayed and came up(The Lord Did) with this solution.

    The next meeting was a wednesday night. I asked everyone in the room to take a small slip of paper and write down their most pressing problem and give it to me with their name on it. I collected the papers and went on with the class. During the time between then and sunday, i found scriptures that i thought might apply to each one of their situations. I wrote the scriptures on the same slip they gave me and returned them to each one of the youth, so no one knew anything about the others concerns.

    I then went on to explain how scriptures are to be used. To hid them in their heart. This took away from learning a scripture that had no current weight in their life to them. this made it personal and then i explained that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

    I instructed them that when they felt overwhelmed by their current”Crisis” that they should start quoting the scripture out loud if they were alone, and just in their head if in public so not to expose their problem to the world.

    WOW, with just one week, most were coming to me and asking about “other problems” that they were having, so we would find another fitting verse and they would go and practise living that verse for a week.

    You would be amazed at the effect it had on the entire group, They not only became a close nit group, but soon they began bringing friends to cleasses with them.

    The point is that your relationship with the Lord means nothing to them, you have to get them to allow god in their lives personaly, and his word is the method that will always work when all else fails.

    Get them involved personaly with the Lord concerning Their Problems.

    then sit back and Watch God Work!

  2. good thoughts, peter. thanks for taking the time to share them. i remember a friend talking about a chemistry prof who had done intense, specialized chemistry, and was teaching organic chem. which is a hard course for pre-med and other science majors. but to her it was too easy. she had a hard time explaining because she had gone so far beyond it, in a sense. not that i’m saying we have gone so far .. but as Christ-followers, it seems like He gently reminds us that we need to keep revisiting and relearning and deepening in our understanding and living of His truths. the simple ones. like Jesus loves me. and God is good. and i am forgiven. so many layers, i suppose .. always room to grow, no matter how much practice we’ve had!

  3. It seems strange to me as I think about learning to Love God, if you love someone it should be a natural progression of your life with that person. The more I spend time thinking about it Learning to Love God it makes more sense to me. Think about the first time you spent time with somone and how your feelings have changed over time as you were with them more, if they were a kind and considerate person you began a love for that person that was not there before you knew them. It is exactly the same with loving God the more we spend time with God the deeper our love grows for God. The question is how do we spend our time with God and aren’t we always spending time with God but do not reconizie it? Just wondering any thoughts? After all isn’t God the most kind considerat and compasionate we know?

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