What would you say has affected your life more than anything else as a Christian? What has made the greatest impact on your walk with the Lord?
There are probably hundreds of individual answers to this question, but for me, the thing that has changed my life more than anything else after being a Christian for over 44 years is knowing how to give things over to God and being able to leave them there. Knowing how to surrender my "self" to Him so that He can love His Love through me affects every choice that I make. This simple discovery has impacted my life more than anything else, because it's really the "key" to the abundant Life!
Most of us, as believers, understand that we have God's Love (or His Life) in our hearts. But how many of us, in all honesty, really experience that Love of God out in our everyday lives - in our marriages, in our relationships and in our workplace? We all talk about experiencing His Love, we write about it and we sing about it, but how many of us are really living an abundant love-filled life?
There's a huge difference between simply knowing that we possess God's Love in our hearts and actually experiencing that Love in our lives . The key to doing this, I believe, is understanding how to relinquish ourselves over to the Lord (becoming open and cleansed vessels) on a daily and moment-by-moment basis. Then, His Love from our hearts can flow out into our lives.
Exactly how we do this is what we want to explore in this new series of articles.
One of the most provocative verses in all of Scripture, I believe, is Matthew 24:12, which tells us that in the end times (just before Christ returns), one of the things that will be very apparent is that the "love of many will grow cold."
Now, the interesting thing about this verse is that the Greek word for "love" here is Agape , which means God's supernatural Love. Therefore, this passage is referring to "Christians" - people who have God's Love in their hearts. It's saying that in the end times something is going to happen to that Love of God in Christians' hearts that will cause it to grow cold and become quenched or blocked.
I remember when I first read this passage 20 years ago, it shocked me that Matthew could possibly be referring to God's Love. Human love I could understand, but God's Love absolutely astounded me. However, in the ensuing years since I've understood this verse, this is exactly what I've seen occurring in the Christian world - the disintegration of Christians' love for one another. And this is one of the reasons why so many Christian marriages, relationships and church bodies are having so much trouble. Something has happened to God's Love in our hearts that has made it grow cold in our lives.
I understand this personally, because I was one of those Matthew 24:12 statistics for the first 20 years of my marriage. I had God's Love in my heart (I had been a believer for over 20 years), but His Love had certainly grown cold in my life.
My first little book, Why Should I Be the First to Change?, tells the complete story of our failed 20-year Christian marriage and how God miraculously turned it around and healed it by His Agape Love. It's ironic, however, because all through those first troubled years, I thought I was operating on God's Love. After all, I had been a Christian for over 20 years, so I naturally assumed I had God's Love automatically flowing from my life! The truth was, I didn't even know the meaning of the word Agape, because I was loving my Chuck hoping to get in return the love that I so desperately needed and that's not God's Love at all, but my own self-centered, natural, human love !
I think many Christians today are doing the exact same thing: not only confusing God's Love with their own human love, just as I did, but also looking in all the wrong places to have their needs for love met, just as I was. They are looking to their spouses, their children and their families to find the love and security they need. In other words, they are looking horizontally to have their needs for love met, not vertically to God alone as they should be. And that's exactly what happened to me!
John 12:24-25 says, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth [hangs on to] his life shall lose it; and he that hateth [lays down] his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal."
The question, of course, is: HOW do we do this on a practical day-to-day basis?
I'd like to begin by sharing a portion of my own story with you, so you can see what the key was (in my own life) that changed everything. Back in 1975, when the crisis in our marriage came to a head, we had been married for about 20 years. God had given us four beautiful children, Chip, Mark, Lisa and Michelle. At that particular time, Chuck was the CEO of a large electronics firm just outside of San Francisco and we lived in a beautiful, sprawling, three-acre ranch house with a pool, stables and guest quarters. We drove fancy cars, traveled extensively and enjoyed a life of affluence.
Anyone who might have seen us at that time might have thought, "Wow, the perfect Christian family." Truly, from the outside it looked like we possessed everything anyone could ever want. But, if they could have seen us on the inside they would have seen six very empty, unhappy and loveless Christians. Chuck and I were like so many Christian couples you see today who are just existing together - simply passing in halls - certainly not experiencing abundant, love-filled lives as the Bible promises.
Our marriage was what you might call a "professional" marriage - a marriage where two people are living together strictly for the purpose of show, security or convenience. Again, the little book Why Should I be the First to Change? relates all the details of our marriage problems, how they began and what God did, but for our purpose here, let me give you a quick synopsis.
Our marital problems seemed to stem primarily from four areas:
First, my Chuck was (and still is) the typical Type A workaholic. Back then, he worked seven days a week, twelve-hour days and traveled on the average of two weeks out of every month. When he was home, he always had mountains of paperwork to do, phone calls to make or computer work to complete. He was always preoccupied.
Next, because Chuck was an absentee dad, we had many problems with our children. During the worst part of our marital problems, our boys were teenagers and, of course, there are many unhealthy avenues out there for lonely and unhappy 14- to 15-year-olds. On top of this, our youngest daughter, Michelle, was extremely ill and often in the hospital. She needed her dad just as much as the boys did, and the resulting emptiness formed deep emotional scars. Lisa was only six at the time and quietly endured the hostility around her, but inside she, too, was deeply wounded.
In addition to the above problems, in later years we encountered huge financial reversals. We went from being millionaires with the ability to buy anything and everything to total bankruptcy - corporate and personal. Many marriages never recover from the trauma that this brings.
Finally, the problem that seemed to compound all the others was that we continually moved. In our first 20 years of marriage, we moved 15 times. We never stayed in one place more than three or four years. Moving when your children are small is traumatic enough, but moving when your kids are teenagers is absolutely deadly. Relocating so often created innumerable problems for us.
Not only did the above circumstances create gigantic tensions between Chuck and me, but we each had our own way of dealing with these things, which caused even more stress and strain on our marriage. Chuck naturally vented all his feelings; I pushed them down and stored them for future use.
Both of us were locked in our own private worlds of tension and strife and trauma, and on our own would never have moved towards the other. We had come to a total deadlock and both of us were miserable, with little communication between us and certainly no love. We were simply existing together, as I see so many others doing today, certainly not experiencing the abundant Christian life as we were supposed to!
As my feelings of frustration, resentment and bitterness over the above circumstances became unbearable, I would go to the Lord and say, "Where is the abundant Life that I'm supposed to have as a Christian? If You are the answer, then why am I so miserable? Where is the Love You talk about in Your Word and how on earth do I really experience it? "
Maybe some of you reading this can relate.
What I didn't understand at that time was that Agape is not a human emotion or human feeling, but God Himself loving through us. 1 John 4:8 tells us that "God is Agape." Therefore, God is the One doing the loving, not us. And all He desires from us is the willingness to set our "selves " aside, so that He can love His Love through us.
Now, when I say "set our selves aside," it's important you understand exactly what I mean. I don't mean setting aside who we really are and becoming some sort of a mindless robot. I mean simply learning to set aside all our thoughts, emotions and desires that are contrary to God's will and becoming a cleansed and open vessel. God's Life in our hearts will then be freed to come forth and fill our souls.
"Self" can be defined as all of our own thoughts, emotions and desires that are not of faith or that quench God's Spirit in us. For example, anger, guilt, bitterness, resentment, unforgiveness, criticalness, doubt, pride, fear and so forth are the things that come from our self or our flesh.
Thus, all God desired from me at that time was the willingness to first yield and surrender my self to Him, so He could then freely love His Love through me. In other words, God's Love does not automatically flow through us just because we are believers. All of the things that we choose to hold on to - i.e., the above list (even if they are "justified" by the world's standards) - block God's Love in our hearts and cause it to grow cold in our lives.
There's a very provocative Scripture in Psalm 119:70 which talks about our hearts becoming "fat as grease." I can almost visualize a layer of kitchen grease covering my heart when I choose to hold on to or entertain any negative thought or emotion. The lesson here is very simple: in order to experience God's Love freely flowing from our hearts out into our lives, we must be open and cleansed vessels.
My Own Marriage
This was the problem in my own marriage. I wasn't a clean and open vessel. I didn't know how to be. I didn't know the first thing about giving my self over to God; therefore, His Love in my heart had become "covered over with grease" just as Psalm 119:70 says, and had "grown cold in my life."
I can remember one particular occasion when I was so overwhelmed by my feelings of despair that I locked myself in a darkened room of that huge, sprawling ranch house in Woodside, California, laid on the floor and cried uncontrollably until I thought I would die from the emotional pain. At the time, I didn't know how to give my self - all my hurts, pain and confusion - over to God, so after three hours of uncontrollable crying, I pushed all my emotions down deep, locked them up tightly, forced a smile on my face and came out to begin all over again. I thought that by burying my real feelings and emotions and putting on a smile, I'd get rid of them and no one would know the difference. How many of you do the same thing?
The truth is that when we bury our real thoughts and emotions, we don't get rid of them. We just program them in deeper, and then they can become the motivation for many of our future actions.
Now the world functions this way because the world has no other choice - no other option . Without Jesus in our lives to literally take away our hurts, fears, insecurities, unforgiveness, etc., we're all walking "time bombs," ready to explode! Read the newspapers today, watch TV, look at the people on the street and the kids in school. This explosive attitude is prevalent.
Naturally we all respond to hurt and pain in one of two ways: we either vent our anger and our frustration or we push our hurts, bitterness and unforgiveness down and bury them. If we have Jesus in our hearts, however, there is a third option (and this is what this series of articles is all about): if we can simply recognize and acknowledge our true thoughts and emotions and learn how to literally give these things over to God (rather than venting them or burying them), then He promises to remove them from us "as far as the east is from the west" (Psalm 103:12) and fill us with His Love.
Thus, our only responsibility, as believers, is to recognize and acknowledge the negative things in our lives that are not of faith, and that will block God's Love in our heart, and learn how to give them over to Him. Then, God can freely love His Love through us, and not only will we have His Love for others, but we'll also experience His Love for ourselves in a greater degree.
* * *