Two months ago, we began a new series, entitled The Key- how we surrender ourselves to God on a practical and moment-by-moment basis. In the first two articles, I shared portions of my own story in order to show how this principle has radically changed my life. I explained how, twenty years ago, we were "pushed to the wall" in our marriage through various circumstances, just as we see happening so frequently now in the Christian body. I expressed how upset I was when God told me that "I" had to be the first to change! As far as I was concerned, Chuck was the one with the mixed-up priorities, not me! When I shared that opinion with the Lord, however, His answer was, "Nancy, the reason you need to be the first to change is because your life depends upon it."
Oh, how those words have echoed in my mind over and over again throughout the last twenty years! But, it's so true: our individual lives do depend upon our own willingness to allow God to change us first - the willingness to allow Him to search our hearts and point out the things that are not of Him; the willingness to surrender those things over to Him; and then, the willingness to allow Him to change us more into His image. If our eyes are always on the other person and their faults, how can the Lord ever accomplish what He wants to in our lives? He can't!
The Real Problem
So, the real problem in my marriage was with me, not Chuck! Matthew 7: 3, 5 says it so appropriately: "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considereth not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."
Consequently, nothing in the world could have saved or fixed our marriage until "I" learned how to become a cleansed vessel so God's real Love could flow from my heart into my life.
What exactly does "becoming a cleansed and open vessel" mean? What's the practical application of doing this? We all talk about giving things to God, but most of the time we end up taking them back three minutes later. How can we give our hurts, un-forgivenesses, guilt, feelings of betrayal, mistrust, etc. over to God and leave them there?
Inner Court Ritual
In the Old Testament, there was a ceremony that the priests of Solomon's Temple went through in order to deal with their sin and be reconciled with God. I call it the Inner Court Ritual. The same four steps that the priests did, I believe, are the very same steps that God has laid out for us in Scripture to help us deal with our sin and self and be reconciled back to Him. Over the next few months, these will be the cleansing steps we will be exploring.
Learning to daily implement these steps in my life is what eventually saved my marriage and helped me survive the sudden and unexpected death of our first-born son; the aftermath of a 6.8 earthquake under our home; the trauma of personal and corporate bankruptcy, the loss of our home, cars and insurance; the betrayal of many of our Christian friends and family; the loss of our reputation; and, all the other day-to-day events in between.
Going through these cleansing steps every time I am confronted with a hurtful remark, a painful situation, pride, fear, doubt, anxiety, bitterness, or resentment (whatever is not of faith or whatever blocks His Love in my heart) is the only way I can stay an open vessel, regardless of what is happening, so God's Love can flow from my heart out into my life.
True Meaning of Loving God
Learning to implement the Inner Court Ritual in our lives is exactly what it means to love God. In Scripture, the Greek verb agapao (to love) means "what we totally give ourselves over to" - what we relinquish, surrender or commit ourselves to. In other words, loving God the way He desires is not an emotion or a feeling, but simply, moment by moment, relinquishing ourselves to Him (becoming a cleansed and open vessel), so that His Love from our hearts can come forth.
"Thou shalt love [agapao] the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment (Matthew 22:37-38)."
Thus, as God began to show me how to love Him and how to become a cleansed vessel, He began to do incredible things in my life. My marriage began to heal and my life changed. The more open I became, the more God was able to give me His supernatural Love for Chuck, which enabled me to love him "right where he was." In other words, love him in spite of what he was doing.
Now, when I say "loving in spite of what he was doing," first of all, I'm talking about a normal husband and wife relationship; and secondly, I'm not talking about being a doormat. So many spouses are petrified of being taken advantage of, of being stepped on or walked all over. And I understand exactly how they feel, because this is exactly what I experienced when I tried the way of submission.
The reason we feel this way is because we are submitting to our spouse out of our hurts, bitterness and resentment, and in our own strength, without being cleansed and without God's Love in the picture. Thus, we will feel exactly like a doormat! On the other hand, if we can first choose to give ourselves over to God (love Him), and then submit to that other person out of His Love, we'll feel more like a powerhouse, because we'll know it's not "us" doing the loving, but God through us.
Picture a Triangle
Think of God's way of Love like a triangle. God is at the top of the triangle. We are on the bottom left corner and that other person we are trying to love is on the bottom right. When we totally give ourselves over to God and love Him as He desires (i.e., become that open and cleansed vessel), God, then, can love His (merciful or strict) Agape Love through us to that other person. And, prayerfully, that other person will eventually return the love.
God's way of Love, by the way, is not just for married people, it's for all of us! Wherever there is a relationship, we need God's Way of Agape (with our kids, our bosses, our in-laws, our friends, even with our enemies, just as Luke 6 tells us).
Loved Once Again
Once I learned "how" to love God (how to, moment by moment, totally give myself over to Him), Chuck began to "feel" God's Love coming through me and responded by returning all the human love that I was so desperate for in the first place.
In other words, once Agape becomes the foundation of our relationships (the glue, so to speak), then all the natural, human loves that have died in that relationship will have a basis upon which they can be restored and rebuilt. Thus, we don't throw out the human loves when we learn to love with God's Love, we simply make sure that they're built on the solid foundation of God's Love.
Several times in the past few years, as Chuck and I travel and teach all over the world, people have noticed how affectionate we are to each other and they'll comment, "Oh, you must be newlyweds." When we answer, "No, actually we've been married for nearly 45 years," their mouths drop open and they are absolutely dumbfounded. The underlying thought is, "How can you be married for 45 years and still be in love?" Well, the answer is, with Agape as the foundation, you can!
There are volumes of examples of how God's Love began in our lives and how it continues to work, as we stay open and cleansed vessels. All of my books, tapes and articles are full of stories. God's Love has not only saved our marriage, it's the glue that continually reconciles and maintains our marriage daily. I know for a fact that if it hadn't been for God intervening in our lives 20 years ago and showing us how to love Him and how to love each other with His Love, we would not be together today. God's Love has not only salvaged our marriage, it has turned it around to where it's a hundred times better, deeper, sweeter and even more passionate than it ever was, even in the very beginning.
Talk about hope for marriages, hope for relationships, and hope for families! God's way of Love truly is the answer! In order for His way of Love to work, however, we must first learn HOW to give ourselves over to Him on a moment-by-moment basis. This is the KEY to the whole Christian walk, because then, and only then, will we be able to experience His Love, not only for others but also personally for ourselves.
The Steps of Cleansing
David Needham, author of the book Birthright, states that, "The big task is not the finding of the truth, but the living of it," and, boy, I agree with him completely. What good is having God's Love in our hearts if we don't really know how to let that Love out into our lives? In other words, what good is being a Christian if it doesn't change or affect our lives?
With this in mind, over the next several months I'd like to share with you what the moment-by-moment steps are to becoming an open and cleansed vessel so that God's Love can flow into our lives. The steps we'll be learning are not ideas that I have made up or that I've found in some psychology book or a self-help book. These are the actual steps that the priests took in the Inner Court of Solomon's Temple in order to deal with their sin and be reconciled to God.
The first four steps that we'll be exploring are simply attitudes (or predispositions) that we need to form daily. These are not necessarily steps we must do each time we quench God's Spirit in our heart, but simply attitudes we need to have "on" daily in order to be willing to be changed. We should go over each of these attitudes prayerfully every morning (just like getting dressed) to remind us of the need to be a cleansed vessel. The four attitudes are:
1) Presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.
2) Denying ourselves-our own thoughts, emotions and desires.
3) Obeying God's will - getting up and doing in action what God has asked us to do. And,
4) Taking every thought captive and dealing with those things that are not of faith.
These attitudes are simply predispositions that will keep us "willing and open" to putting off the flesh and putting on Christ. These will facilitate a mental state of openness and readiness. Romans 8:6 tells us that we can either be "spiritually minded"-having an attitude that results in life and peace; or we can be "carnally minded" - having an attitude that results in the quenching of God's Spirit. This is a choice we will face every moment of every day for the rest of our lives! The final four steps that we'll be exploring are the essential steps that we must take each time we quench God's Spirit and find our hearts covered over (or "greased over" like Psalm 119:70 talks about). I call these last four steps the Inner Court Ritual because they are the exact steps that the priests took. They are:
1) Recognizing, acknowledging and experiencing our ungodly thoughts and emotions as they come in.
2) Confessing our sin and self, choosing to "turn around" from following them and unconditionally forgiving anyone who has wronged us.
3) Giving over to God all that He has shown us that is not of faith. And,
4) Reading God's Word and replacing the lies with the truth.
Implementing these four essential steps and the four attitudes in my Christian walk over the last 20 years has impacted and changed my life more than anything else. This is really the "bread and butter" of my Christianity. Without this daily and moment-by-moment cleansing, I cannot genuinely worship, I cannot truthfully serve, I cannot honestly love, I cannot authentically pray and I cannot faithfully trust. Knowing how to relinquish myself to the Lord on a moment-by- moment basis and love Him is the key to my Christian walk.
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