Jesus Knowing Christ
Engaging the Intimate
Engaging the Intimate Relational Process
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The Nature and Extent of Our Involvement:
Vital Relational Acts
This is the first and greatest commandment.
The relational process of spiritual growth involved in following Jesus and knowing Christ is ongoing, always developing further and more deeply, though not usually in a linear manner. Yet, don't confuse the relationship with an evolutionary process. The relationship is not in a process of becoming, it already exists even though transformation is necessary. It's the growing experience of this relational reality that is emphasized here. These intimate relational outcomes don't happen inexplicably or arbitrarily but result from intense relational work. This is what Jesus wants us to keep cultivating with his Spirit by "making every effort," to concentrate on "with great exertion."
His person and words, however, have revealed to us two efforts which are exercises in futility:
(1) trying to combine the common and ordinary of our ways with the uncommon (holy) ways of God.
(2) defining the eternal and the more of eternity on the basis of the temporal and what is familiar to us.
Both of these efforts essentially maintain relationship with God within the limits of our terms and our comfort zones. They try to experience more in the relationship on the basis of less, thus end up substituting quantity for quality. Both contradict the vital issues of our intimate trust of God and our need to be transformed. This tendency is a constant tension in our relationship. If it is unaddressed by relational work, the relationship is rendered increasingly to compromise--not necessarily moral compromise but unequivocal relational compromise of the quality of the relationship.
The relational consequences of our compromises are not readily apparent to us, particularly when we're not thinking relationally. The two areas of greatest consequence in the relationship are the vital relational acts of worshipping God and loving him. In the context of the temporal and the course of the common, how have we defined and practiced worshipping God and loving him?
When we reduce love to something we possess, to a feeling or to what we're doing, then we take away its substance and minimize its relational experience--both receiving and giving. When we reduce the practice of worship to a time we have (or go to), to an emotional high or to what we do, then we take away its heart and lose its intimate relational experience.
These acts have always been basic and vital to relationship with God as reflected in the first commandment given to Moses (Dt 5) and the greatest commandment repeated by Jesus (Mt 22:37). To what extent these were perceived relationally when originally received is questionable but their function for the relationship is unmistakable.
Basic to any meaningful relationship is to be treated with the integrity and dignity of what one truly is as a person. We are inconsistent in how much we require this from others in our relationships. God demands it from us; there is no hesitation, flexibility or compromise on his part.
In the OT two Hebrew words denote treating God for what he truly is: hawah, to prostrate oneself, an act of respect before one superior in position and essentially signifies submission; and abad, to serve, minister, worship (Dt 6:13). When Satan tried to interfere in Jesus' relationship with his Father and to get him to compromise, Jesus rebuffed him with these words from Deuteronomy (Mt 4:10). Worship and service can only be reserved for and rightfully demanded by the Lord God alone.
The relational act of worship cannot be reduced to a time or place (as Jesus told the Samaritan woman, Jn 4:21-24), nor limited to what we do (as he told the followers of the law, Mt 15:8,9). Worship is the natural relational treatment of one who is superior. Though human stratification ascribes that position to various persons, only God can rightfully demand such treatment. Though we sing with the psalmists that no god compares to the Lord God, the fact is there are no other Gods, period. Worship is the relational act reserved only for God; and he has strong feelings about this (Dt 5:9; 6:15).
God expects to be treated like this all the time.
Worship is the relational treatment of God any time in any place. This treatment is not reserved for a particular time nor limited to a special place. God expects to be treated like this all the time. In this sense worshipping God is not special or unique; and we are not treating him accordingly when we assign worship to only certain moments in the relationship. Of course, corporate worship is a further dimension. Yet, we have to grow out of this false distinction such that increasingly we don't separate worshipping him from our prayers, our service, our play, when we eat, even when we sleep. Everything we do includes an act of worship, that is, the natural treatment of and expression to him alone who is worthy. My wife and I even find ourselves spontaneously expressing worship to him in various moments while we're having sex.
Is this hyperbole or is it realistic to practice? Does God really expect, even demand this treatment all the time? If we believe that the transcendent God is also relationally present, then how do we practice his continuous presence? Do we merely acknowledge that God is present with us or do we also involve ourselves with him ongoingly? Whether we involve ourselves directly with him or not, we are always communicating relational messages about how we are treating him--specifically, how we see him and what we think about our relationship. Do these messages reflect the treatment rightfully due the Lord God? We must address this and account for our actions.
Throughout our history as relational beings, humankind constantly has deferred to superiors and expressed loyalty to them one way or another, either in place of or along with God. The objects of such treatment have become more and more impersonal, like things or ideas, thus they are increasingly obscure as idols in the practice of our faith. We are not always aware of these attachments. When the impact on our relationship with God is examined, however, the substitutes we practice in place of the relational act of worship are exposed and the conflicts we have (even unintentionally) due to divided relational attachments start to surface. This can be the case even though the outward appearances indicate worship (cf. Mt 15:8,9). When it comes to the functional posture in our everyday life of what is denoted as worship, we have to ask ourselves: in actuality what/whom do we defer to and what/whom are we loyal to with greater attachment and priority than God?
Compromise in our worship of God is not easy to acknowledge, especially if such compromise is not obvious to us. If we faithfully attend worship service and participate in it to the extent available to us, we tend to feel that we worship God. And in these brief moments we may in fact have worshipped. Yet, it's always easier to fulfill our perceived duties and obligations when we define an area like worship in such a limited way and maintain this false distinction from the rest of our life. But how we practice the worship of God overall often reveals our ambivalence or our conflicting attachments, sometimes expressed in a "dual personality." On one side, we may generally have greater interest (on the mind level) in God and show him greater respect. On the other, we may have stronger attachment (on the heart level) elsewhere and thus give a higher priority to something else. That is, we end up essentially giving ourselves over (bow down) to something other than personally and directly to God; and this posture may never surface on Sunday morning.
True worship functionally signifies submission . . . .
To understand worship as a relational act helps us to see the presence of compromise and its consequence on the relationship. When Jesus rebuffed Satan, was he just applying the truth to a tense situation or was he exercising what is basic and vital to relationship with God (Mt 4:10)? True worship functionally signifies submission which then would involve service to the superior. To submit is to serve; the two go together naturally and should not be separated. Jesus wouldn't even entertain such a compromise. This relational act, which includes service, clarifies for us when the relationship is rendered to compromise. For example, to only respect God as the expression of our worship doesn't guarantee submission, and thus service to him. How we treat him ongoingly the rest of the week reveals the extent of our worship. Likewise, to only serve God doesn't guarantee submission either if it doesn't include worship. Such service could merely be how we define ourselves or establish our worth.
Worship is relationship-specific and its presence or absence tells us a lot about the relationship. The functional posture of worship serves as the primary determinant for what a relationship means to us. It distinguishes what we have attachment to (in our heart) from that which only has our interest (primarily in our mind) or our sensory experience. Based on our attachment it determines our priorities; interest alone is not sufficient to establish priority. Just as the worshipper Jesus lived for us to follow, worship is the benchmark for relationship with God because it expresses who is important to us and what the relationship means to us.
When Jesus challenged two persons to follow him, one of them replied "first let me go and bury my father" (Lk 9:59). Jesus said essentially that there are two realities here:
(1) the social reality of the world which includes the family of those who are spiritually dead; while a definite reality in which we all participate, he is telling us not to be controlled by it nor let it define us; (2) in contrast, he brings forth the reality of the kingdom of God, that is, the family of those who are alive, new in Christ, free from the control and definition of lies which dominate the social reality of the world; this new reality needs to be "proclaimed" (Gk. diangello, declare fully and throughout) because people need this family of the living and God wants all to be in his family (Lk 9:60). This is about more than interest but about attachment and priority.
The second guy responded affirmatively to Jesus' challenge but first wanted to "go back and say good-bye to my family" (Lk 9:61). Seems reasonable but this was really an excuse because saying good-bye (Gk. apotasso) in their cultural context connotes a lengthy process (maybe many years) and a number of duties to perform before leaving. This guy may have had a stronger interest to follow Jesus than in his family. But he obviously had a stronger attachment to his family; emotional attachment would always be greater than intellectual interest, no matter how strong. His first priority was still with his family over Christ.
This is about the relational issue of worship and what/who will determine our lives.
The same word for good-bye was used by Jesus for the need to "give up" (apotasso) everything to be his disciple (Lk 14:33). Christ demands that in terms of our interests, attachments and priorities, everything else must be subordinated to him. This is not about relinquishing all else and detaching ourselves from them, particularly the relationships he described earlier (Lk 14:26). This is about the relational issue of worship and what/who will determine our lives. That's why Jesus kept emphasizing in this context and to the successful young guy before (Mk 10:21), as well as to the second guy here (Lk 9:62) that anything less is a compromise, that it's not "fit for service" (Gk. euthetos, usable, suitable), that is, relationally meaningful in God's family. To defer with ambivalence and to have conflicting loyalties do not establish our worship of God as the benchmark for relational work in the relationship. Only wholehearted worship puts us in rightful relationship with God.
This is God's will. This is how he expects to be treated, this is what he demands in relationship with him. This is what is rightfully only his to receive--all the time, in all our places, in all that we do. So, Jesus' question is urgent for us: "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord' and don't do what I say?" (Lk 6:46). For Christians, in other words, what exactly is the relational work we are engaged in? The significance of Lord is not an honorific title we confer on him or a role we ascribe to him to fulfill. Lord is who he is and relationally signifies only worship, submission and service. Anything less is to not be truly involved with him in rightful relationship, though the appearance of our practice may seem so (Lk 6:47-49).
Appearance can be deceiving, especially for those who define themselves by what they do and engage in so-called relational work by how they do relationships. Jesus said those who live under the illusion that appearances create have no relational significance to the Lord. There is no substance to their relationship, even though they broke bread together and learned from him (Lk 13:26) and served in his name (Mt 7:22). Based on this kind of relational involvement, the simple fact and truth is that the Lord does not know them (Mt 7:23; Lk 13:27). Anyone with such involvement would also not know him through intimate experience, no matter how much information about him is known. That's why Jesus made it imperative for us to "make every effort" (agonizomai), fight, struggle, battle, exert great effort, whatever it takes, for authentic relational work (Lk 12:24). No substitutes or settling for less.
When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God and having a place in it (Mt 7:21; Lk 13:28,29), he didn't mean merely a status to possess. Nor is participation in his kingdom merely a privilege to enjoy. This status and privilege are the relational outcome of owning up to our relational responsibility of "the will of my Father" (Mt 7:21). Because of some theological views about the kingdom of God, many Christians tend to be predisposed about not being able to experience it until Christ returns again to establish it. Yet, whatever our theological position on the issue there is a more urgent relational matter to experience now.
When Jesus' earthly family of origin tried to constrain him in
his ministry (Mk 3:21), he raised the issue of "who is my family?" (Mk 3:33)
Family was very important to Jesus, but not as we commonly see it or feel
obligated by it. Pointing specifically to his disciples
Regardless of our theological position on the kingdom, this is available for us to experience now. His kingdom is not about a belief system and following certain ways. The functional reality of it is better understood as family; and it is better experienced as relationally being family (though not in our common ways of doing family relationships) and building his family. Because God is the God of heart and intimately relational, his kingdom is about relationships. These relationships with him and with each other exist now, not for the future. Family focuses his followers on this relational process. This is what the Father planned for us from the very beginning (Rom 8:29): not to try to conform to Christ ontologically, but to rightfully worship him as Lord; not to emulate Jesus' ways and values but to conform to his Son in substance relationally as his children in his family together.
This is the Father's will. In Jesus' words, what characterizes the Father's will is that it "leads to eternal life" (Jn 12:50). From our previous discussion of this familiar concept, eternal life is not about some future state, condition or way of life. Eternal life is about relationship, about specific relationship with the Father and with Jesus Christ in which the intimate experience of knowing them begins now (Jn 17:3). The commandments of God all lead to this relational outcome. The promises of God all serve this relational purpose. As we will continue to see, all of God's efforts, his words, his person(s) converge on this intimate relationship and its growing experience of love (Jn 17:26). He keeps transforming us from the temporal and common and leads us into the eternal and the Uncommon; that is, he keeps drawing us intimately closer to himself. This is the more which satisfies the eternity planted in our hearts (Ecc 3:11).
Our social, cultural, even religious contexts make it difficult for us to practice authentic relational work.
God is always doing his part in the relationship. We have to work together with him to experience this relational outcome. Our social, cultural, even religious contexts, however, make it difficult for us to practice authentic relational work. Unless we understand these divergent influences on our life and are undergoing transformation from them, we can unintentionally render the relationship to compromise.
If we can shift to Paul for a moment, that's why he was so emphatic in his charge to Timothy (read 1 Tim 6:11ff). We could easily misinterpret Paul's charge as doing, doing, doing, which includes "Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called" (v.12). The word for "take hold" (Gk. epilambanomai) slightly intensifies the word "to receive" (lambano Jesus as in Jn 1:12). It means to take serious interest in, with concern and become involved in, that is, to experience it and not merely possess it. We can miss what we need to intently take hold of if we don't see eternal life as the relationship. Maybe we would even be a little confused (like Thomas asking Jesus about the way, Jn 14:5) and wonder how we can take hold of something if we don't really have a concrete grasp of it to begin with. When Paul said "Fight the good fight" (v.12), he used the same word (agonizomai) Jesus used for "make every effort" (Lk 13:24). Paul wasn't talking merely about spiritual warfare but about the intense relational work necessary for the relationship of eternal life. Paul charged Timothy not to compromise this relationship. He couldn't afford to--neither can we.
While only complete worship puts us in right relationship with God, only the relational act of love deepens this relationship. They are not mutually exclusive but love is a distinct relational act which, like worship, needs even greater distinction in today's Christian contexts. Besides worship, no area produces greater relational consequences from its lacks than the vital relational act of loving God. Yet, can we find an action in our relationship that has been subject to more loose definition and compromise than the act of love?
I suggest two reasons this condition exists today. First, God's love is hard for us to truly understand. There is a lot of mystery about his love--beyond the comforts of our reason and the safety of our minds. We know his love "endures forever" and his is "unfailing love." Everything else about his love seems to be beyond us (Ps 17:7) and too great for our finite minds to understand (Ps 33:5; 57:10). This becomes the problem with the overuse of the mind and overdependence on reason. When we don't understand something important like love, we tend to fill in the blanks with our biases and according to how we commonly do relationships. We talk, for example, about John 3:16 and the cross but often act according to our own ideas about love. In our minds we think "we get it," yet more often than not this only reflects our notions, not our relational experience with God's love. Do our actions demonstrate a gap in understanding his love?
Paul tells us we can "grasp" (Gk. katalambano, to comprehend, intensive of lambano in Jn 1:12) the fullness of Christ's love and to know this love which is beyond knowledge (Eph 3:18,19). How can we comprehend something beyond us, know what is beyond all knowledge? This is only possible through the work of the Spirit in our hearts (vv.16,17). In other words, we can't comprehend God's love simply with knowledge in our minds. This only happens from the relational experience in our hearts. This is a relational outcome only from intimate experience with God, especially through forgiveness. As long as we remain within the comfort zone of our mind and don't make our heart vulnerable to him in the relationship, his love will be beyond our experiential grasp.
A second reason (already alluded to) suggested for this condition interrelates to the first. We don't love very much or very well when we haven't been loved enough in the relational experience of forgiveness. Recall Jesus' words to Simon when the prostitute anointed him: "But the person who has been forgiven little loves little" (Lk 7:47). In these words Christ gives us the basic propositional truth about love (agape). Deeds of love neither result in forgiveness nor establish our worth. Rather, forgiveness precipitates love. Forgiveness is a present existing condition the effects of which move the person forgiven to act in love. The simple truth is we who are forgiven little agape little--affectionate love, passion, romantic love notwithstanding.
God knows we're not going to love him until we first let him love us.
As we discussed previously (in Chap. 5) God knows we're not going to love him until we first let him love us (as John said in 1 Jn 4:10,19). Our experience of his love, not our knowledge, that is, our experience of letting God love us has to start (and to continue) with the experience of his forgiveness. With our track record about love we have to wonder how well we're letting God love us. Christians speak of God's love routinely in various contexts with glittering words. But have our hearts actually experienced his love relationally in forgiveness enough to have the effect in our lives of translating love into relational action--both to God and others?
Either our love is deficient or our experience of being loved is insufficient. Whatever the reason, the act of love is vital for us to better distinguish in our heart and to distinctly express relationally in our actions.
We know that the first and greatest commandment is to love God; the second is to love others as our self (Mt 22:37-39). If we obey his commands (Jn 14:15,21), obey his words (Jn 14:23), we love Christ. Paul adds in relation to others that love is the fulfillment of the commandments, the law (Rom 13:8-10). God's commandments are not ends in themselves for us to perform; they are a means for us to love. Everything that God has always wanted from us throughout the Scriptures (the Law and the prophets) is based on his desires for us to love. All that he says and does serve to lead us to love.
But this love is defined by God, not by our loose definitions and compromise. Let's examine this further, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7) where Jesus takes us from the appearance of a new life in Christ to the substance behind this reality.
As we've studied Jesus' person and words, he has consistently demonstrated the importance of the heart by how he lived and interacted with persons. He vulnerably revealed the God of heart in distinct relational terms. In his teachings the heart emerges as more important than the mind, though certainly not at the exclusion of the mind. This is not an anti-intellectual position but a life process countering the reductionism of the total person and intellectualizing important aspects of our life, and against the subtle dependence on rationalism to establish our life. Such contrary tendencies in Christians are reflected, for example, in what we depend on to define ourselves and in what we pay attention to in how we do relationships. In thankful contrast, Jesus openly showed us what's important and how God is by connecting us with the intimate relational nature of God's heart.
In such practice the quality of life becomes sacrificed for and substituted with the quantities of life.
Through teaching the substantive meaning of the Law and the prophets (in Mt 5) Jesus opens to us the heart of God's desires for his people--the primary purpose behind all of God's directives. He does this by addressing two of the overriding and far-reaching effects of the common and dominant ways of doing things: (1) they give more emphasis to secondary aspects of life than to the primary aspects, and (2) as a result, they do not give top priority to interpersonal relationships and their intimate nature. In such practice the quality of life becomes sacrificed for and substituted with the quantities of life.
We know that the scribes and Pharisees essentially were concerned about doing the "right" thing. Their approach, however, using only "the letter of the law" functioned only to keep them from negative actions, from doing the wrong thing. It didn't serve to lead them to positive actions. Consequently, as illustrated by the examples Jesus raised (see Mt 5:21-48), they felt everything was fine as long as they maintained the limited responsibility defined by their approach to the Law--which, again, in their minds was merely avoiding negative actions. Murder and adultery, for example, were only defined literally (by the letter); the deeper implications of God's desires and design for these principles were not embraced. God's desires probably were not even considered. Even if they understood his desires, they were predisposed merely to avoid the negative. Undertaking positive action was not the focus of their minds.
The consequence of this approach affected the individual and their relationships. For the individual the focus increasingly concentrated on outward dimensions of one's action. What a person was doing became the prime source of defining oneself and establishing one's worth. In such practice personal responsibility became more and more limited to the outer presence or absence of certain activity. The presentation of self then relied essentially on appearances because appearance became the emphasis of importance. Intentionally or unintentionally, what was truly OK became more what appeared to be OK. It didn't seem to really matter whether image was consistent with reality. This is analogous to the emphasis today on the construction of image and to the influence virtual reality has on our thinking, our perceptions, our practice--especially, for example, on contemporary worship service.
When this happens, the purpose and function behind God's commandments are lost to one's concern to do the "right" thing, or not to make the wrong presentation. His purpose and function are constrained in one's narrow definitions of God's commandments and the substitutes replacing his deeper desires. The consequence of this on the individual's relationships is that, for example, to practice "an eye for an eye" (Mt 5:38) left no room to make a positive response to those who unjustly treated you. Some of these examples may be relatively extreme for us to identify with but the relevance and importance of Jesus' teachings about God's desires for our relationships should not be lost to us. This was how they did relationships because that was their focus, that was the extent of their interest and concern. In functional everyday practice, within the limits of this approach there was no room for quality relationships, no place for the total person and, indeed, no room for love.
Jesus forcefully addressed the whole issue of appearance in his teachings here (Mt 6:16-18). Properly presenting oneself before others was the focus of concern for these persons. Activities like charitable acts (6:2-4), prayer (6:5-7) and fasting (6:16-18) became important merely as things to do--relational purpose and function being lost in their practice. The process of placing greater emphasis on the outward aspects of what we do involves turning means into ends in themselves. For example, prayer was intended as a means for greater connection and intimacy with God, but it was turned into an activity that Christians should do--as an end in itself, unknowingly or unintentionally. In this approach the objectives for prayer--or worship, church work, whatever--become increasingly satisfied merely by having done the activity. Relationship with God is subtly subordinated in practice or sometimes even forgotten in the process.
Of course, the emphasis on the outward aspects of what one does involves not only the individual and relationship with God. There is further relational consequence with others. Appearance, as it relates to one's self-assessment or self-image, does not involve just "looking good" but by its nature has to involve "looking good in comparison to others." This comparative process is essential in establishing one's self-worth. And this kind of comparing with others inevitably creates competition--explicit or implicit. The competition, however, is usually not of an edifying nature; and it certainly doesn't lead us to the deep desires God has for relationships. It gets us into directly or indirectly depreciating our "competitors" so that we can feel better about ourselves or look better before others. In essence, it creates exactly the kind of process indicted by Jesus later in this body of teaching (Mt 7:1-5).
As we've discussed previously, Satan promotes these common ways among Christians with special emphasis on appearance and presenting ourselves as righteous (or spiritually correct). This gets us into some ironic contrasts and subtle conflicts with Jesus' words here. For example, in relation to oaths and the value of our word (Mt 5:33-37), the common tendency was to say more than was necessary in order to establish the worth of our words. Jesus said to keep it simple; anything "over and beyond" depends on appearance which is a lie from Satan (v.37). To extend this principle, in a verbal-oriented approach as I've had, I have to really work on not going "over and beyond" with my words; this effort gets into building up my image. In contrast to the more important area of relationships, the common practice was not to go "over and beyond" in love (vv.46,47). The irony and subtlety of Christian practice should not surprise us. This issue is powerfully summarized by Paul: "knowledge puffs up [our appearance and image] but love builds up [others in relationship]" (1 Cor 8:1).
We do a lot of activities which seem to be satisfied more by the presence of certain outward aspects than by a deeper substance.
Today, we may not have the same codes to follow to the letter
like the Pharisees and scribes. Yet, in terms of what we depend on to define our
self and what we pay attention to in how we do relationships, we may have
similar practices in principle to which we subscribe simply by the letter. We
may not be as blatantly obvious, or even concerned, about the importance of
appearance as they. Yet, we do a lot of activities which seem to be satisfied
more by the presence of certain outward aspects than by a deeper substance. I
mention contemporary worship again as probably being at the top of this list.
Also, we may be much more sincere in the practice of these activities than the
Pharisees and scribes, though I doubt that few of us are as rigorous as the
Pharisees. Nevertheless, sincerity is not sufficient, and we can't plead
ignorance here. Good intentions do not fulfill our relational responsibility to
God and to others.
This relational responsibility is not understood merely by the letter of the law. The letter constrains our person and exerts influential control on our perceptions (of God, others and relationships) increasingly relegating our practice into a box, substituting our definitions for God's and rendering our relationship with him to compromise. That's why the Sermon on the Mount is so vital to every Christian's practice, past, present and future.
When Jesus added and made primary the dimension of "the spirit of the law," he revealed the deep meaning of God's desires for his people. A review of the various examples Jesus raised (Mt 5:21-48) to illustrate the principle of the spirit of the law highlights the primary purpose God designed for his people: relationships. Jesus wasn't concerned about his disciples always doing the right thing, as the Pharisees were (e.g., Mt 12:1-8; Lk 5:33ff). Nor does he want us to be scared of doing the wrong thing. What he is concerned about and what he wants us to practice is to give primacy to our relationships and to the persons involved in them. In this Jesus takes us out of our comfort zones (Mt 5:46-47) and, in contrast, directs us to love--his way, not ours.
Jesus countered all common ways of doing relationships with a process . . . which can make us uncomfortable.
Jesus countered all common ways of doing relationships with a process of inter-person relationships, the depths of which can make us uncomfortable and even be very threatening to us. Why? Because with the spirit of the law Jesus revealed to us: (1) what it means to love; (2) the intimate relational process of love; and (3) the dignity and integrity of the persons involved in this process. All of these can touch our insecurities about being vulnerable, confront our defenses such as comfort zones and boxes for control while challenging us to change from our old ways to his new life. They can affect us like this because these deal with issues in our heart. Anything involving the heart, of course, makes us vulnerable; and how threatened we are by this depends on how much we have to change and how much we're willing to change.
We need to add that Jesus wasn't relieving us of responsibility when he abolished the legalistic systems of his day (Mt 5:17). Contrary to such thought, he really gave us more responsibility. He relieved us, on the one hand, of the burden of responsibility created by the letter of the law as a system of self-justification to establish ourselves by what we do. Yet, on the other, he gave us the added relational responsibility of the spirit of the law. This spirit does not represent only a greater flexibility and application of the Law. Its whole design is to lead us into taking positive action in our relationships with others--to care and to love.
Taking positive action involves extending oneself in a caring and loving depth of relational action toward the other person. His examples (Mt 5:21-48) accentuate the key qualifying words, depth and relational. Such action must always build intimate connection with the other person in the context of the relationship, not merely as an activity or as some act as an end in itself. In each of the examples of loose definition, misinformation or compromise, Jesus strongly set the record straight ("But I tell you...", 5:22,28,32,34,39,44) by declaring God's design and purpose for relationships and clearly expressing his desires for how he wants relationships.
As we seek further understanding of God's way to love and reflect on Jesus' teachings we may have mixed feelings. The more difficult feelings are important to distinguish for ourselves. Tension about this would be natural, even some fear because it's expanding us into new territory; in fact, there will be much conflict with the old that will need to be resolved. Feeling burdened by expectations, however, as well as the fear of failing to measure up are contrary feelings which indicate we haven't heard Jesus' words and God's desires for our life. Where is the focus, if we feel burdened or fear failure?
When Jesus set the record straight, he exposed the self-concern about what to do and defined what love truly is. Contrary to many of our concerns, love is not about what to do. But when we think about Jesus' teachings, that's what often gets most of our attention. The demands of what we've got to do weigh on us for the most part. They can even intimidate us at times--especially when it includes loving as Christ loved us.
In contrast to these perceptions, biases and concerns, Jesus gave us (not just told us) what love truly is. Love is about how to be involved in relationships. Love (agape) is relationship-specific, not deed-specific; and involvement in that relationship is deeper and fuller. There are two parts to this involvement: (1) from my side, I need to be involved with my total person, which includes the most important part--my heart; (2) in relation to the other person, I need to be involved with the person and resolved (even devoted) to act for the sake of, the welfare or well-being of the other (agape). Such involvement (agape) doesn't require having an affection (phileo) for the other nor that we even by necessity like the person. Agape is not selective to our preferences nor reactive to those negative to us (Mt.5:43-47). It is the willingness and openness of the heart to be involved with that person, regardless.
Jesus closed this section with "Be perfect as your heavenly
Father is perfect" (Mt
God only wants love the way he defines it, the way he's involved.
Growth in being "fully developed in love" is based only on love as God loves. We can't expect this development from the practice of a "love about what to do." That would be easy to fall into if we haven't changed how we define ourselves. God only wants love the way he defines it, the way he's involved. The common way we do relationships and the importance we give to the heart and the person--not in theory but practice--leave a lot to be desired when it comes to the relational act of love. Can there be anything more frustrating than to think what you're doing for someone is in love, only to find out later that they don't feel loved? The church in Ephesus learned this the hard way when Jesus put their devotion and dedication into this perspective (see Rev 2:2-4).
Love as God loves! Reflect further on the incarnation and on Jesus' person and words even before you get to the cross. Get past the information and work with the Spirit to open your heart to God's relational involvement with you.
Did God love us in theory? Was he involved with us from a comfortable distance? Did he love us in words? Was his love merely given by his deeds? The answers don't just give us information about God and how he loves. We are observing in Jesus not only historical scenes but also the ongoing process of relationship-specific involvement in which we are able to participate too. Jesus exposed God's glory to us first "to see" (Jn 1:14, Gk. theaomai), that is, to view attentively, to contemplate in order to perceive it correctly and in detail. Then, more importantly, he wants us to experience God in intimate relationship because that's who, what, how God is. Take in his relational messages to you.
As the God of heart who is intimately relational, he extended himself to us to be vulnerably present in our life. That's how he's involved, that's how God loves. His love is intimate involvement from the heart given directly (as opposed to indirectly through things, deeds or others) to the other person only in the process of intimate relationship. Because that's how he's involved with us, that's why we can intimately experience his person and thus know him. That is, we can when we receive his love (receive him in his involvement). His love is not a quantity or substance to possess, nor merely a deed to receive. It is solely his person vulnerably extended to our person and intimately involved in our relationship.
The relational implications of the incarnation can never be emphasized enough. To know God, unfortunately, often has been unintentionally disassociated with the vulnerable person of Jesus and his intimate words. Knowing him has come to mean a variety of things. Contrary to common thinking, frequency of contact and length of relationship don't guarantee knowing someone. For example, there are good friends who don't know each other because they don't share together in the intimate way Jesus shares as a friend. There are family members who don't essentially know each other because they don't connect in the intimate way Jesus connects with us. There are spouses who don't really know each other (even after years) because they aren't intimately involved with each other just as Jesus is with us.
Despite how straightforward this relational process is which Jesus executed, we must not oversimplify it, like we often do about God's love and loving him. By God's definition, love is an action of the heart. Therefore, no other life action requires our transformation more than love. There's no way agape gets developed in us without first being loved and ongoingly transformed by God's grace. Agape is a devotion that goes beyond one's self-focus, self-interests and concerns; it is action resolved for the sake of, welfare and well-being of the other. Our heart isn't automatically at this point, as we noted for Peter earlier. This love is not a natural action for us, though we were created for it. Love is predicated on God's grace; and forgiveness is the relational process through which we experience his grace and being loved. This ongoing relational experience is necessary to impact our heart and have the unequivocal effect on us of being loved. Without this experience, everything else about love is theoretical, intellectual or wishful thinking.
Without God's grace not only are we unable to connect with God, we also don't have God available to connect with. We have to realize that for the holy God to be involved with us he has to exercise grace continuously. That is, he extends grace not only when we need it to be involved with him. He also has to exercise his favor just to be in our presence. I don't understand how the holy God can be vulnerably present with us but I know it requires his favor. His presence can't be legitimately taken for granted nor assumed because his presence isn't warranted by us. In this sense, not only do we receive God's grace for ourselves but God has to exercise it for himself too. It's absurd to think that we don't need his grace likewise for his ongoing involvement with us, whether we've received his grace to be involved with him or not.
Historically, God has had strong negative feelings about involvement with his people, and there were times he withdrew his favor. The incarnation wasn't inevitable even though the event was predetermined. His continuous presence is not a vague deterministic conclusion but the relational outcome of God's favor. This is really not inexplicable. His grace may be a mystery as well as how the holy God could do this. But his relational involvement is clear to grasp. We have to expand our perceptions of grace from only something we need to receive from God for ourselves to also include the means God is involved with us. This is his unfailing love. This is why he always acts in agape and how he wants us to be involved in our relationships.
Letting him forgive us and transform us are how he wants us to be involved with him.
As we are loved by God and being transformed by his grace, he is starting to be loved also. Love is about how to be involved in relationship. Letting him forgive us and transform us are how he wants us to be involved with him. That's why Jesus made obedience to his commands basic to loving him (Jn 14:15,21). He didn't separate obedience from love because obedience is that involvement with him in our relationship.
To understand how to love God, it's really vital for us to connect together some of Jesus' important words to us. Let's start with his first set of words above:
A. Obeying his commands (Jn 14:15,21), his teachings/words (14:23) is to love him.
Obedience as Jesus describes it is a relational process, the same process of obedience he himself is involved in with his Father (Jn.15:10) as an expression of his love (Jn 14:21). Like love, obedience is not about what to do or to give him. Obedience is not something we perform individualistically by merely exercising our will independent of any relational significance. Even gritting our teeth to act is not sufficient for obedience. In probably his deepest experience of humanness, what was the relational process when Jesus didn't want to die on the cross (see Mt 26:39,42)? Exercising obedience as our involvement in the relationship puts us in the relational position to experience him more and thus to know him intimately.
How does this happen? Let's go to his next set of words. Whatever Jesus said (his commands, teachings, words) is only what his Father commanded him to say (Jn 12:49,50b). Jesus obediently passed that on to us because:
B. God's command leads to eternal life (Jn 12:50a).
But it's important to understand that eternal life is not a reward for obeying his commands; failing to make this distinction eliminates the need for his grace. Obedience is not a quid pro quo exchange process. Eternal life is the relational outcome of obedience's involvement in the relationship--an ongoing outcome to experience even now. We have to connect set A to set B. Obedience to God's command engages him in deeper involvement and opens the relational process to experience greater intimacy, with the outcome of knowing God.
Why is this the relational outcome? This goes back to what eternal life is all about. If it remains about longevity and a future condition, then we take Jesus' words out of context and miss his person.
C. Eternal life is to know God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ (Jn 17:3).
Knowing him is not about intellectual information or the limited knowledge of the mind, which were insufficient for Thomas and Philip to know Jesus (Jn.14:1-10). To truly know him is the relational experience of the total person intimately involved in the relationship. This relationship cannot be on our terms in our common context. His grace has brought him to us and is always sufficient for us to be with him. Nevertheless, his grace is not sufficient for him to be involved with us on our terms nor for him to have relationship in our context. It's silly for us to try to have him do this. The holy God cannot do relationship by the common and ordinary or within the context of the temporal.
The bottom line is that we can't truly know him and experience the extent of his love until we get down to the eternity substance planted in our heart and get "into eternity" with him. He indeed came to us first, but he leads us from here into the context of eternity to have intimate relationship with the Uncommon, undertaking our transformation in this relational process. When we connect set A with B to set C, obedience puts us in the relational position for this outcome.
Obedience is not something we give God, however willingly; it's not something we do for him, whatever our good intentions. Obedience as God wants it is strictly relational work. Like love, it is relationship-specific, and the two should not be separated. So, loving God also is not something we give him nor do for him. To love God is the relational work of being intimately involved with him.
In this deep sense God doesn't want the time, gifts or resources we can give him, the services we can do for him, nor even merely our words, no matter how much they talk of love. He only wants our person, that is, me. But how can we give him me without our being vulnerable to him, especially with our heart? It's always easier to give gifts or deeds to the other person in a relationship, it's much harder to offer me. This is the beauty of the prostitute's love for Jesus when she anointed him (Lk.7:36ff). Don't be distracted by the act, she gave Jesus me. How did Jesus love us? Don't focus only on the cross or the manger. As much as Jesus did, his acts reflect the giving of me.
This is the relational significance of agape. We can't give me without sacrificing our self-concerns, subordinating our self-interests and being vulnerable with the honest reality of our heart. Agape does this and involves me with the other person. Anything less in relationships is a substitute. In our Christian practice, for example, it is important to distinguish between discipline and agape. Whether it's the discipline of obedience or the discipline to love--even spiritual disciplines--discipline tends to give too much focus to what we do whereas agape focuses on the other.
When we try to love on the basis of what we do, then by this self-definition the focus is on the act because the doing is necessary to accomplish one's objective. So, it really becomes difficult to know exactly whom the act of love is for--even if one sacrifices in order to do something for the other. This kind of love would focus on the sacrifice because that involves what one does. Agape, however, focuses on the other person and the relationship, and how to be involved with them. Agape is how Jesus loves us and involves himself in our relationship. Our relational experience of him is the sole basis for how he commanded our relationships to be:
D. "As I have loved you, so you, yourselves, must love one another" (Jn 13:34).
He doesn't expect us to love without first being loved. How we do relationships reflects significantly what we experience in our relationships, past and present, especially with God. Agape is relational work, not a deed to perform even though some undertake it as such. Because of its nature, agape is also not an act we can merely exercise our will to produce, though it certainly involves our will. Likewise with obedience, we can't keep obeying routinely as a personal commitment or rigorous discipline without relational involvement and outcome.
The nature of relational work is that it is never unilateral. The relational process with God is always reciprocal. That is, the relationship involves "receiving and giving," "giving and receiving." No dimension of the relationship experiences the reality of reciprocity more than the process of love. In response to set A, Jesus expands on the relational outcome from set C with the promise to intimately experience:
E. "The person who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love that person and show myself to him/her (Jn 14:21) ... my Father will love that person, and we will come to that one and make our home with him/her" (Jn 14:23).
While set E is responding to set A, it is ongoingly interacting with set D and resulting further in set C. This is the reciprocal relational process of relationship with God involving the intimate experience of love.
Remember what the Father's love is from our previous discussion. His love for us includes phileo (Jn 16:27) as well as agape, just like he loves the Son with both (Jn 5:20;15:9). Furthermore, the Father loves us in the same way he loves Jesus (Jn 17:23b,26). What they share together intimately in their relationship is what is available for us to share in and intimately experience together. This is what it means to be family. This is the relational outcome of eternal life which happens now.
The interrelation of these sets of Jesus' words is vital for us to understand and experience. It takes us from the static information and knowledge of Christ's teachings to the dynamic process of relationship with the person Jesus and his words for relationship. When connected in this relational context, his words describe the reciprocal and reflexive nature of the relational process and involvement with God.
Yet, this process results in more than this relational outcome. It also has a profound effect on the individual person who participates in it. Jesus shares this outcome somewhat as a conclusion to his words:
F. "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete" (Jn 15:11).
His words are not to burden us with expectations, to cause us fear of failing, to intimidate us back into our comfort zones and boxes. What is his joy that he wants to be in us? That we do the will of the Father so we can be together intimately and be family. This is how he wants our joy to "be complete" (Gk. pleroo), that is, deeply and fully satisfied. This is the outcome of the blessed (makarios of the Beatitudes in Mt 5), those who are deeply and fully satisfied because they intimately share in God's very own personal life. Frequently in relationships we feel like we need to be doing something to validate our involvement in the relationship. We have difficulty just being together. So, in relationship with God we feel blessed the most when God is doing something for us. We don't perceive just being together as feeling blessed. Yet, that's the greatest blessing of all: enjoying the presence of God and his involvement with us, and being able to participate in his life together in his family. This is the more of eternity that keeps growing, the potential extent of which is not a measure of our heart but of the heart of God.
Set F is underlying to each of the previous sets and the process as a whole. While this satisfaction should not be our goal nor the primary motivation for our involvement, nevertheless, our satisfaction is a distinct outcome we can expect--which we also need relationally to hold him accountable for.
Jesus' words ultimately are about relational work. Authentic relational work is always focused on the primacy of the relationship and the importance of the persons involved, not on doing something, not just on me. Agape always focuses on the other person in the relationship, not on what needs to be done, not on what needs to be sacrificed in order to do it--though obviously those things may have to be accounted for, but not taken into consideration to determine whether to act or not. Relational work is not about me and what I have to do. As such, Jesus didn't separate the relational act of love from the relational act of obedience.
These various acts, like love, are about how to be involved with God in our relationship.
This is important for us to consider further regarding the various relational acts involved in our relationship with God. We talked earlier, for example, about not constraining worship to a time or even a place. The act of authentic worship is a relational posture which needs to be present in how we're involved with God whatever the time, place or activity. We can't separate this act from the relationship as a whole and relegate it to only a certain aspect of the relationship. These various acts, like love, are about how to be involved with God in our relationship. So, whether we're talking about the relational acts of love, obedience, worship or service, increasingly it is important not to separate these into exclusive actions, partitioned into one area of the relationship. They are all part of our relational work in growing intimate with God.
In this sense it can be helpful not to distinguish them in our thinking such that we're not always aware that this is my worship, my obedience, my love, my service and so forth. They are so interrelated in our total involvement with God; they all reflect deep involvement with God. In spirit and in truth, with heart and honesty, they increasingly together need to express our involvement with him. For example, it would be fitting to be praising him while serving, to express love to him as we obey, to obey him in love along with worship as we submit to him in service. If any of these acts don't express this kind of involvement, then that action has no relational significance to God. That is, he's not interested--absolutely no interest in being a part of an activity (like worship), in being the object of duty or obligation (like obedience), in being a figurehead in the relationship (like love), in a relationship in name only (like service).
Having said this we need to return to the dominant focus in these sets of words from Jesus. Since love is about how to be involved in relationships, love dominates Jesus' words: his commands, his teachings, his promises. Loving God is the extent of our involvement with him, worshipping him is the nature of our involvement. While worship rightly bows down to him, love opens fully the heart to him and deepens the relationship. The extent of the relationship is significantly limited without this involvement. Its absence indicates a problem with trust. Trust is indispensable to relationship with God.
Trust is also unavoidable in any meaningful and significant relationship. Whether in relation to God or to others, love is fundamentally about making ourselves vulnerable to intimacy, which includes being vulnerable to our own heart. Anything less than this in our relationships, foremost with God, is a substitute--the less we often are settling for, both in our giving and in our receiving. Rather than being vulnerable to intimacy, our common ways of defining ourselves and doing relationships make us essentially more susceptible to compromising the primacy of relationships and the importance of the persons involved.
Relational involvement has always been time-consuming, as well as the more difficult choice to make because of conflicting influences, including Satan's counter-relational work. That's why Jesus (Lk 13:24) and Paul (1 Tim 6:12) both said that it is imperative to put everything we can into authentic relational work. But for us today, relational work is also not efficient by our modern standards and work habits. Most persons today don't want to be bothered by its demands. And many Christians are influenced by this predisposition and mindset, thus compromising the importance of relational work with substitutes. Not only is God shortchanged by this, we all are.
Attached to his words in set D, Jesus said that agape involvement with one another distinguishes his followers to the rest of humankind (Jn 13:35). But if we do relationships according to the commonly established ways of our socio-cultural contexts, what distinguishes us as Christians? Agape is always characterized by going beyond what is common (Mt 5:46-47). Our most significant distinction is the agape depth of relational involvement with one another based on the direct personal experience of his intimate involvement with us (Jn 13:34b). If we limit our involvement in relationship with him, obviously that will reduce our experience of him. This, in turn, lessens the base from which to be involved with one another. Based on the quality of relationships (both with God and with others) implemented by the person and words of Jesus in fulfillment of the Father's design and purpose, will we settle for less and continue to make substitutes in our relationships?
The reduction or loss of intimacy is the most glaring problem in relationships facing us.
The reduction or loss of intimacy is the most glaring problem in relationships facing us. The limited or shallower level of involvement characterizing relationships today has become so established in our midst that most persons routinely expect to experience only that--at times, even to the extent of wanting it this way, as dissatisfying as it may be. This can be said for relationships at church also. We have no apparent conflicts about wearing "masks" in presenting ourselves to each other just as Adam and Eve wore fig leaves. We hide our heart in our activities in the same way they hid in the garden. Or we keep our relational distance by the titles we wear and with the roles we perform. To engage person-to-person, heart-to-heart almost seems foreign to us. In the process down through the years, we've become scared to be vulnerable with our true self, even to the point of being unaware of those feelings. The relational consequence is that we get comfortable in how we do relationships, set in the ways we've defined things and resistant to change.
Our salvation may not depend on changing our current practices. Hopefully, the desire for more will encourage us to step out of our comfort zones to satisfy this need caused by the substance of eternity planted in our heart. Certainly, the critical condition of relationships in general challenges us with the urgent need to expand our boundaries and connect with more persons, especially those different from us. Ultimately, we can't stay where we are and expect to grow in our person, in our relationships (with God and with others), in our place in his family because Jesus' person and words make it imperative for us to be ongoingly transformed.
To worship and to love God, to be involved or to have distance--that is the relational question! This is the position Jesus puts us in by vulnerably coming to us in the flesh with his person and words. Depending on our perceptions, this is either a burden or a blessing. Either way we choose, it is always a relational statement about how we will be involved with him.
Thank you Jesus for your presence vulnerable to us so that we have this choice. Thank you for sharing intimately with us so we know clearly what our choice is. Thank you for ongoingly pursuing us so we are always face-to-face with this choice.
©2003 T. Dave Matsuoback to top home
Study Guide & Growth Plan
The Nature and Extent of Our
We have to start putting together the various words of Jesus into the whole of his "one and only" purpose fulfilled in the incarnation of his person. If we take any of his words out of the context of this whole, we lose the relational significance of his purpose in sharing those words. If we practice any of his words apart from the relational process he vulnerably established in the incarnation, such practice loses its relational significance to God.
Each of Jesus' words is only one part of this whole which the Father gave him to fulfill. As we "put the pieces together" (syniemi) and grasp his "one and only" person of purpose, we have the further opportunity to grow in intimacy with God.
The alternative is reductionism--reducing truth, life, the person, relationships with substitutes and settling for less than the gospel. Our choice determines whether the News for each day of life now is indeed Good or merely So-so.
We need to understand and take responsibility for different ways we relationally
compromise (not morally) the quality of relationship with God.
If you truly believe that God is present in your life, how do you treat him ongoingly? Identify the relational messages you are communicating to him in each of the various ways you treat him.
Contemplate the statement: "The functional posture of worship serves as the primary determinant for what a relationship means to us."
Why does God need, in a sense, to exercise grace for himself also?
Explain the significance of Jesus' question in Luke 6:46 for the relational work you are engaged in ongoingly.
Why didn't Jesus separate obedience from love? Explain how obedience is a vital way for you to love him and know him deeper.
If love is making ourselves vulnerable to intimacy, what are the implications of practicing love without practicing intimacy?
How do substitutes and settling for less compromise relationships and the persons involved?
Review the incarnation as the relational process of love. Use this relational context to determine the relational work ahead for you.
How does Christ's life reflect "the giving of me" and how can you further grow to give him me?
Outline how you can further respond to Paul's charge in 1 Timothy 6:12 in your relational work.
How does the incarnation beg the relational question and how does our answer define the extent of the gospel, the Good News?
Explain what the Father's will is for us "here and now" and how this leads to eternal life.
Explain what agape love is and is not in relational terms.
What is the focus of authentic relational work and why is it important not to differentiate its various relational acts?