Theology isn’t the goal of faith, Love is

Evangelical Christians have a habit of being known more for what we believe theologically/ideologically than for how we live. And when those outside our camp think about how we live, “hypocrite” is the frequent accusation. I’m not here to debate whether or not that’s a fair accusation, but I’ve been challenged twice just today to remember the centrality of love for God in the Christian life.

I was rereading Revelation 2-3’s letters to the churches and was struck again by the Letter to the Ephesian Church. Here’s what immediately jumped out at me:

“I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.” (vv.2b-4)

What Caught My Attention
As someone who named his blog “Living Theologically” I doubt I need to tell you that theological faithfulness is important to me. The name of this blog isn’t just an idea that I came up with, it really is a description of how I think, make decisions, observe what’s around me, even how I make jokes (or attempt to, at least). Accordingly, I naturally filter what I hear and read through a biblical and theological lens.

The Ephesian Church did the same thing, and yet they were rebuked because the did this at the expense of love. How often do I, and how often do we as thoughtful Evangelicals, think theologically in a way that separates doctrine from love?

No Division Necessary
Theological faithfulness and passionate love for God belong together. One without the other either leads to sterile faith or rootless faith. Scripture consistently affirms God’s passionate love for humanity. Why, then, do we who desire to know him thoroughly fail to show the kind of love towards him that we are trying to understand?!

As I/we continue to grow in our understanding of who God is and what He’s done and what He’s calling us towards, let us do so with our eyes firmly fixed on God Himself, not on our theology books or creeds. When we desire theological clarity more than we desire intimacy with Christ then we are in danger of forsaking our “first love.” As the A.W. Tozer quote above reminds us, “The Devil is a better theologian than any of us and is a devil still.”

The Heart of the Christian Faith is Love
The heart of Christianity is love: God’s love for us, our love for Him, and our love for each other. As the Apostle Paul concludes in the famous “love chapter,”

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (vv.1-3)

Theological precision is good, it’s something I am committed to – but love is better. I know from experience the coldness of theological faithfulness when one’s heart begins to harden towards God. I want a soft heart that is filled with wonder that God would love me. I want a discerning heart that would give someone a word of comfort and hope before I jump to correct their theology.

I don’t think I’m alone. I think there are many who hear the words to the Church in Ephesus and are convicted about forsaking their love for God in exchange for theological accuracy. Let’s not throw theology in the dumpster or say it’s not essential (it is, just read the words to the Church in Thyatira!), but let’s remember that Love is primary.

  • Do not let God’s love for you grow boring or theoretical
  • God is more than “a good idea” …  ask yourself whether or not you have affection for God
  • When God’s love for you (or your love for Him) begins to grow cold, you can assume that your love for other people has already iced over. You cannot love God without loving other people (1 John 4:20), so if you want to recover your love for God then send some “Thank You” cards, give to those in need (out of genuine love, not pity), and listen carefully to those around you (and refrain from being the “answer guy” who knows the solution to all their problems… just listen).

Note: I heard John Piper talk on the relationship between the heart and the head last year at a Gospel Coalition: New England conference. I haven’t read his book Think, but I know it dives into this topic more fully… if you hear nuances of what Piper writes about in this post it’s probably coming from the talks I heard last year. 

I’d love to hear from those of you out there who share this struggle with me, please add your insights in the comment section regarding the relationship between theological faithfulness and all-out love for God. I know I’m not alone… 

 

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Understanding the Lord’s Prayer

Many people can recite the Lord’s Prayer without being able to explain what it means or answer basic questions about it.  I’d like to break it down very simply to help us all better understand what Jesus was teaching about prayer.

It’s a Pattern, Not a Chant. Jesus said, “This, then is HOW (not what) you should pray…”  Jesus gave it as a pattern for his followers to copy.  He did not intend for them to recite it as if they were chanting a magical incantation that would force God to do what they want him to do.  The different parts of the Lord’s Prayer are meant to teach us something about God, prayer, and about our need.

“Our Father in Heaven.” First, we should start our prayers by recognizing that we are praying to God Almighty who is in Heaven.  But at the same time, we approach him as a child approaches his loving father.  God is “in Heaven,” but He is our loving Heavenly Father.  Just as a respectful child approaches his father with humility and love, we also should approach praying to our Heavenly Father with humility and love rather than praying as if God is a “Cosmic Vending-Machine” who is there to give us whatever we ask for.  We should start our prayers by humbly recognizing who we are and who God is.

“Hallowed be your name.” We barely ever hear the word “hallowed” today, and most of us couldn’t give a good dictionary definition for it… and yet many recite it in the Lord’s Prayer without giving much thought to what we’re saying in this line.  “Hallowed” literally means “to make holy” or “to demonstrate as holy.”  So when we say “hallowed by your name,” what we are praying is, “show us how holy and perfect and ‘different from us’ you are!”  This line really is an extension of the opening acknowledgement that God is our Father in Heaven: First we recognize that God loves us and listens to us (“Our father in heaven”) and then we move on to recognize his holiness (“hallowed be your name).  God is not our buddy whom we should carelessly address, but neither is He is distant and uncaring God whom we should be terrified to pray to.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God is the King.  When we say that God is “Sovereign,” what we are declaring is that God really is in charge of everything.  Even some atheists pray when their loved ones are in a terrible life-threatening accident.  That’s because there’s just ‘something’ inside of us that tells us God is in control, and Scripture time and again affirms that idea.  The word “will” means the same as “desire,” so by praying for God’s will to be done we are praying for all that God desires to be done.  If we pray but refuse to submit to God’s authority (“your will be done…”), then we are only deceiving ourselves and we’re not really praying the way Jesus taught his followers to pray.  As Jesus’ people pray and obey God’s will for them, his kingdom is made increasingly evident to the unbelieving world around them.

“Give us today our daily bread.” God provides.  He does not give us everything we ask for, but He gives us everything we need.  This doesn’t mean that people who are dying of starvation aren’t praying enough (but it does mean that others aren’t praying “your will be done” enough!).  God provides everything we truly need. This line points back to when God was leading Israel out of Egypt and provided the Manna from heaven each morning for them to eat.  God did not give them enough to last any more than a day so that they would have to continue relying on Him to provide.  Likewise, we are are following Jesus each day can trust that He will provide everything I need for today; and tomorrow he will provide for everything I need tomorrow.  God cares for his children and takes care of them.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” God is the only one who can forgive sin, I think most people agree about that.  In Matthew 6:12 the Lord’s Prayer says “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” while Luke 2:4 says “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.”  Scholars agree that the reason these lines are different is because Jesus probably taught them this prayer in Aramaic (which was the commonly spoken language of the day), so when they wrote the prayer in Greek they used different words to communicate what Jesus said.  This line in the prayer is significant, because we we pray we confess our sins to God and admit our need to be forgiven.  You cannot receive forgiveness if you don’t admit that you need it!

“And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Confessing sin to God in prayer is really important, but so is repenting from your sin.  I like to think about “Repentance” as doing an “About-Face” – imagine you’re walking one way, then you stop, turn around, and start walking in the opposite direction that you were walking in before – that’s what repentance is like.  When we confess our sin to God we are admitting our need to be forgiven and that we have dishonored God.  Confession is great, but if we do not repent of our sin then we are doomed to repeat it.  Praying this part of the Lord’s Prayer might sound like this: “God, I know that I have sinned by gossiping about my coworker.  This does not honor you and isn’t what you want from me.  I want to speak well of people and not be known as a gossip or slanderer.  When I am tempted to gossip, remind me of your desire for me to to speak well of people and make me a blessing rather than a discouragement.”  It’s important for us to realize that we cannot escape temptation on our own, no matter how “good” we are or how much self-control we have.  We are fully dependent upon the Holy Spirit who lives in Christians to give us eyes that see temptation coming and feet to escape it.

“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, Amen.” Technically, this isn’t in the Lord’s Prayer in Scripture and therefore some traditions don’t say this when they recite the Lord’s Prayer.  This simply is a way of closing out the prayer while again declaring God’s holiness and sovereignty.  We pray for God’s kingdom and power and glory to be lifted up and made more beautiful in the eyes of all people.  “Amen” is an expression that means “So be it” or “Make it so.”  By closing our prayers with “Amen,” we are declaring that we truly believe that God has heard everything we have said and that He will do it.

I hope this has been a helpful look into the Lord’s Prayer.  Please feel free to ask any questions as a comment below and I’ll do my best to reply with an answer.  Martin Luther’s “Small Catechism” has a section on the Lord’s Prayer which is really good, I highly recommend it for those of you who might be looking to read a bit more.

[note: I wrote this post and published it on my youth ministry’s blog, crosswalking.net in order to help parents better explain the Lord’s Prayer to their children.]