Continuing our series on the fruit of longsuffering, we turned our attention last month to what it really means to obey the Lord. Since the word ''obedience'' is such a very broad term, we narrowed it down to meaning three essential things: 1) Obedience means learning to ''love'' (agapao) God; 2) Obedience means learning to moment-by-moment renew our minds; and 3) Obedience means learning to have unshakable faith in our difficult times.
Over the next couple of months, then, were going to take a look at each of these three principles of obedience and see how our own lives measure up.
Learn to Love God
If we were asked the question, ''Do you love God?,'' most of us would automatically answer, ''Of course, I do!'' But, if we are honest with ourselves, many of us would have to admit that weve never really studied what the Biblical word ''to love'' means. In our minds, it simply means natural, ''affection'' love (storge). But, Scripturally, nothing could be further from the truth.
The Greek word for ''love'' used in both of the great commandments, is the verb agapao. (Matthew 22:37-39) Agapao means to totally give ourselves over to something; to be totally consumed with it; or to be totally committed to it. In other words, what we agapao is what we put first in our lives. All our intentions and abilities are focused and consumed with this one thing. To agapao something means to bind ourselves to it so that we become almost one with it. Ultimately, what we agapao is that to which we willingly submit our wills and lives.
Now, this commitment love - totally giving ourselves over to something - can either be to God, to man or to things of the world. We, of course, obviously think we are loving God first, but if I asked you, ''How often do you seek to put His will and His desires above your own?'' What would your answer be? Or, if I asked you, ''How often are you consumed with what He desires for your life and not what you want out of life?'' Could you honestly say that you desire His will above your own happiness? How about in a trial?
An Example: A Total Miracle
Let me give you a perfect example of a Christian woman who, in the worst of times, chose to be obedient and love God by putting His will and desires above her own.
Many years ago, Heidi found herself in a very difficult marriage. However, she was absolutely convinced that God wanted her to stay in the marriage, regardless of how her husband treated her. There was no physical abuse or adultery; he simply no longer loved her and wanted her out of his life. He had tired of her and was doing everything he could to make her life miserable, so that she would be the one to file for divorce.
Now, certainly Heidi would have been much happier out of the marriage and away from her husbands constant harassments. Yet, she knew that God had not given her permission to leave. And she was more concerned about obediently doing Gods perfect will than she was about her own momentary happiness.
Sometime later, I happened to see Heidi at a party, and she had incredible news. God had totally changed her husbands heart. He had repented, come under a pastors care and counsel, and was now doing everything he could to make things up to her. In time, God restored their marriage completely. It was a total miracle, but I believe much of it occurred because Heidi was more concerned about being obedient and loving God than she was her own momentary happiness.
Im sure some of you are wondering when you read the above story if you ever will have a Heidi Miracle. Well, its totally up to you and the Lord. But even if your spouse never changes, never softens and never turns around, as long as you keep choosing to do His will, loving Him and trusting Him, your life can still flow with rivers of living water. (John 7:38) Im convinced God wants to and can turn our sorrows into blessings, if we allow Him to.
This unconditional surrender is what it means to love (agapao) God! But, this attitude is very difficult to find in the Christian Body today. Selfishness and self-centeredness seems to be the present agenda. Many Christians are not willing to set aside what they want and what they feel in order to do what God has asked. In general, the majority of Christians are seeking their own happiness and their own fulfillment. Is this your goal? Or is it to set yourself aside and love God the way He desires? (The kind of love He requires is not simply a natural, ''affection'' love, although, of course, it includes that.) Everything in your life depends upon this one decision, this one choice. Will you love Him first, or are you going to give yourself over to your own agenda, your own thoughts and your own ways?
Loving God First
When a trial or tragedy hits, the natural and emotional thing for us to do is to let go, give in and give up, simply because were disappointed, confused and hurt at what the Lord has allowed. This, of course, is the opposite of what we should do and precisely what the enemy wants us to do. When we pull away and isolate ourselves, the enemy wins! Just as the wolf lures its prey out of the pack, so Satan wants to kill, steal and destroy us by isolation and vulnerability. Trials are the most important time for us to pull in even closer to the Lord, trust Him implicitly and love (agapao) Him even more.
We must learn to love God without the need to see or understand exactly what He is doing. The only thing we need to understand in our trial is not what God is doing, but what He expects from us. If we continually choose to do His will - love Him and unconditionally trust Him - well not only make it through the difficult situation, but well free Him to work miracles in spite of it.
Romans 8:28 takes on a whole new light here. ''And we know that all things work together for good to them that love (agapao) God.'' In other words, God works all things together for those who ''totally give themselves over to Him'' - heart, mind and soul. Theres no mention about those who only have natural, ''affection love'' (storge) for Him.
So, to agapao God is not an emotional feeling. Many of us believed this is what ''loving Him'' meant. Again, this is not to say that when we are truly loving Him - laying our wills and our lives down to Him - we wont be emotionally involved. We will! But, we wont be manipulated by our own self-centered thoughts and emotions.
Natural, feeling love, as we all have experienced, puts our lives on a continual roller coaster, because that kind of love is dependent upon our own emotions, our own circumstances and how others treat us. So one day, were up and very happy; but the next, because all three of these things are out of whack, were down in the dumps.
Weve all been there! No, to love God the way He desires is a moment-by-moment surrender of our total self (all of our own thoughts, emotions, and desires that are often contrary to Gods), so that His life (and His Agape Love) can come forth from our hearts and be extended to others through us.
2 Corinthians 4:10-11 expresses it well: ''For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus sake, [so] that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.''
To Love God Is To Lose Self
Totally giving ourselves over to the Lord simply means choosing to give Him anything in our lives that is not of faith. (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)
Now, when I say totally surrendering ourselves, I dont mean losing who we really are and becoming some sort of a mindless robot. I simply mean relinquishing our own natural thoughts and emotions and becoming a cleansed and open vessel, so that His life can come forth from our hearts. He, then, can pour His Love through us to others. If, however, we are holding on to bitterness, resentment, and anger (even if its ''justified'' by worldly standards), His Spirit (His Love in us) will be quenched and He wont be able to use us.
Remember John 12:24: ''...Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.'' The glorious fruit of Gods Love!
The problem is that we often dont see ourselves as Jesus does. We think were in great shape and we dont see our own sin and self. Consequently, in order to reveal our true heart condition, the Lord must allow circumstances into our lives that force us to see our self-centered love, our wrong priorities and our pride. In other words, He pushes us into a corner where we come face to face with what we truly are. We must ''see'' our self-life for ourselves in order to make the necessary choices to give it over to Him.
The Gospel is not health and wealth in this life, but a call to follow in Jesus Christs footsteps. Remember, Matthew 16:24 where He says: ''If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.''
Jesus has left us an incredible example. He was rejected by those He came to save, and then was crucified that we might be saved, loved and have life! This is the example He left for us and the pattern He wants us to follow. To love Him means to lose ourselves so that others might have life!
As someone told me yesterday, we should ask God every day, ''Whom do You want me to give my life away to today?''
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To be continued next month: Obedience Means Learning to Love God (Part 2). This article has been excerpted in part from Nans new book, Never Give Up: The Fruit of Longsuffering.