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Living in Love (Part 5/5)

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.  And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” 1 John 3:1-3

These articles have circled a central theme, “How can I grow my soul?” The first article reminded us that only God can grow a soul. It is a work of His grace. But since spiritual growth is not something simply done to us, but with us, there are practical matters to address within that grace. We learn to live from the inside out, remember that we walk with feet of clay and seek to keep in step with the Spirit, like a dance. While not exhaustive, here is a final thought about souls that grow.

I remember…

Forty-eight years ago, my fiancée and I stood at the front of a church, gathered with family and friends. Just to make things stick, we had two pastors lead us in vows as we entered a covenant for life. This life promise had a double meaning. Not only was it to be for the length of our days all the way to death, but it was a covenant intended for the quality of life. We wanted this relationship to offer us the fullness of life and maybe even create new life from it. Over the 48 years, it has done both.

The decades have brought change. We moved through 4 provinces, several pastorates and at least 3 fridge warranties. We’ve had our portion of struggles. There have been frustrations, fears, confusion, tears, anger, respect and forgiveness. Still, the scars are not obvious. The family we raised has left the nest and are now raising their own families. It’s not possible to articulate the sense of joy, gratitude, and pride as we watch them do it. Now that there is just the two of us and a dog, I note two foundational observations. First, the covenant we entered remains, with this difference. There is a gravitational pull between us that has increased through the decades. The vows spoken long ago are now filled with a content we could not have predicted. Second, this marital covenant has changed me in ways I could not have imagined.

These years have formed me, shaped me. It’s not the wording of the vows that’s been transformative. While I am getting older and events leave their imprint, it’s not just the passing of years or the circumstances of them that have been the primary agents for change. I have been changed by being in a relationship of love through all this time. As life was happening around us, to us and in us, it’s the love we exchanged that has made the difference. The covenant of love has gotten us through the push and pull of life. It has given us hope, comfort, grace, forgiveness, and perseverance. I know beyond debate that it is the relationship of love which has made me better than I would be without it. It has formed me and continues to shape me. My wife would say the same.

Love Makes the Difference

Since these paragraphs are not meant as a marriage seminar, why speak of this here? Because the central truth applies to our souls as well as our marriages. The quality of our love relationship with God makes all the difference in the growth of our souls. It changes us for the better. Many factors have impact on the progress of our souls. The power of truth from God’s Word. The submission of our will in obedience. The community of faith around us. Yet nothing is as compelling as the grace of His love to which our souls echo, “Yes!” Loving God is our central command, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt.22:37). In John’s first epistle quoted above, he is overwhelmed by the greatness of God’s love for us all. He also points to the transformation that love makes in us. “We are God’s children, growing and becoming because of His love.”

For many of you, there was a time when you said, “I do!” to God. By faith, you entered a covenant with Him. You were not exactly sure what that would entail throughout your life. There have been ups and downs, pains and pleasures. But the promise of this covenant was “life” – forever and full. While that promise contains responsibilities and obligations, the central power of the covenant is love. He invited you into a loving relationship. Our Christian walk is about worship, service, righteousness and witness, but all of this is rooted in the love He gives and our love in response. So, for all you note takers out there, poised to jot down the surest way for souls to grow, those looking for a method that leads to maturity, who want the mystery of spiritual formation solved into simplicity – here is the essential principle of soul growth. God loves you and it is this love which will change you. Nothing surpasses this grace.

Of course, His love requires a response from us. I am to recognize His love in the light of my unworthiness. Our hearts are moved to love Him in return. The proposal of His grace is answered by the “I do” of our faith. And so it begins, a relationship in which we are continually responding to the initiative of His love. The words I write sound easy, but you know it is not. We struggle to receive His love, which was ours before we knew anything about it. A love which persists despite our failures.  A love we look to in our storms and take for granted in the sunshine. A love that remains even if we’ve rushed out in anger and slammed the door behind us. A holy love which heals us. A righteous love which sets us straight. In this covenantal relationship with God through Christ, His perfect love is not in question. It is a constant. It is our love which fluctuates.

So how can we better receive His love? What practical steps can we take in response to His grace? I take a risk of making some suggestions to a matter which is so personal and individual. But consider this:

1. Remember you live in a relationship, not a contract

A contract is an agreement of mutual responsibilities and expectations. If one side fails to live up to the stipulations, the contract is at risk of being broken. Any marriage that approaches the relationship with a contractual mindset will be bumpy. Our marital and domestic responses are spurred not because we signed a document, but out of love. So, with God. We act and re-act in this covenant, not out of duty with expectation or entitlement. It is a union of love between God and souls. So, when we are angry with God because we think He is not pulling His weight or we are distant with God fearing that we are not worthy, remember; He loves us. Just let Him love you and love Him in return.

2. Realize that this relationship will never be equal

We tend to balance out the relationships we are in. If someone gives us a gift, we reciprocate. We like the balance sheet between us to be equal. That can’t work with God. He loves us first. He loves us best. He loves us without wavering. In this relationship, His grace will always be greater than anything we could offer Him. So, we can swing to two extremes. We can continually try to prove our value to Him and exhaust ourselves trying to be worthy. Or we can shrink into a sense of unworthiness because we will never match His measure. Neither approach is healthy. Simply accept that He is God, infinite perfection without end. Accept that He has placed His grace upon you without condition or reduction. The magnitude of His love will wound our pride, but a humble state is the best posture to love Him back.

3. Focus on His grace, not your response

I am not suggesting that we become careless of our heart response to God, but being focused on how we are doing becomes self-absorption. “Do I love Him enough? Am I loving Him well? Can I love Him better?” These questions have no final answer. Skin and bone, time and space do not have capacity to love Him as He deserves. It is better to focus on His heart rather than ours. Consider the graces He has given you. Note the comfort, help, clarity and hope He’s granted you. Trace His good Hand through the relationships, activities, and possessions of your life.  When we understand and perceive His heart for us, our hearts become an echo. We love Him because He first loved us.

4. When measuring your affections, ask this:                                   

Of course we will still want to evaluate our soul’s affections. Knowing where and how we are is essential to our growth process. We tend to measure the quality of our love relationship with God by the condition of our heart. We grade its direction, intensity, consistency, and purity. We hold our hearts before Him and ask for His affirmation. But there is an additional question. Our relationship with God is not solely determined by asking, “God, are you pleased with my heart?” We ought also to ask ourselves, “Does His heart please me?” The first question is unending and can feed our insecurities. The second question feeds hope, longing and delight, all essential qualities for a loving relationship. The second question is a truer indication of our heart’s condition

5. Let Jesus lead you in love

Love can be taught. It certainly can be modeled. We are not masters of our own affections. We depend upon the power and grace of God to grant us hearts of flesh in place of stone. We need God to love God. Paul prays for the Thessalonians, “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thess.3:5). That direction will come by the Spirit through His Word, yet it is nurtured powerfully through prayer. It is a simple equation. The more I pray, the more I recognize that I am loved and love in return.

Cold apathetic hearts are the product of a prayerless life.

6. Keep returning

God loves perfectly, we don’t. We may feel distant and dry. We could be hurt and angry. Other affections may capture our hearts. The secret to continued growth is returning. Return quickly without turning a cold shoulder of silence to God. Return with an apology and ask forgiveness. Trust the favour He grants you and don’t worry about “walking on thin ice” with Him.  Return, even though you have had to return many times before. There is no limitation of repentance. In the returning, you will find God’s love and soul transformation. Bit by bit. Day by day. Maturing in almost imperceptible ways – exactly like growing is supposed to be.

Scott Tolhurst

Scott Tolhurst

Scott and his wife have spent almost 50 years following God together through life, marriage and ministry. They’ve hop scotched across Canada and landed at the water’s edge on Vancouver Island. They’ve harvested the riches of family (5 grandkids!) and the delights of God’s people. Life has not always been clear but the fog has been pierced with these truths. The heart matters. Kingdom work is God’s. Nothing can replace faith. It never ceases to amaze Scott that, if his life is a gift, how great the Giver must be!

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