“Unconditional” is a term you’re likely to hear if you hang out with evangelicals often enough. Specifically in reference to God’s unconditional love for us. And thank God for this. If his love were conditional, we’d all be in big trouble. At the end of the day, we’ve all turned away from God in countless ways both big and small. If God would have waited for us to get things right (and made his love conditional), history would never have seen Jesus come to alleviate our debt of sin, selfishness, and rebellion on the cross. We wouldn’t have the invitation, through Jesus, to recover our true identities and purpose before God and to ultimately see death overturned and all of creation renewed.
In light of God’s unconditional love, there are some common responses that people fall in to depending on your personality and religious background. Lots of people are quite nonchalant about the whole thing. After all, it’s unconditional, right? We don’t need to make a big fuss. We just receive and enjoy. In fact, many branches of the Christian family tree even discourage any real response to what God has done thinking that a genuine response somehow negates the unconditional-ness.
Others of us respond with a steady dose of good ole religion. Church every Sunday. Obligatory prayers before dinner and bedtime. Programming the Christian radio station into the presets of our vehicles.
Finally, there are those of us that are the grand gesture types. In response to God’s love, we instinctively want to offer something big in response. We attend Bible school. We look to go into ministry. We seek out an opportunity for overseas missions.
At any given moment, any of these responses may be just right and perfectly appropriate. There’s a time to rest in what God has done. There’s a time to reorder our daily and weekly way of life as followers of Christ. And there’s a time to take the big steps of faith that potentially turn our lives upside down. And at any given moment, any of these responses might be all wrong. Following Jesus is extremely dynamic. There’s some truth to the overused cliche that Christianity is about relationship more than religion.
Fortunately, there’s a way to sort out what’s appropriate and when. There’s a simple response to God’s unconditional love that is affirmed over and over again through the scriptures. The way God would have us respond to his unconditional love is unconditional surrender and obedience. In other words, we embrace Jesus as our Lord and King. We unconditionally embrace his reign and thereby become fit and active in his kingdom.
Lack of our own unconditional embrace of his lordship inevitably leads to trouble. We’re at risk of being the rich ruler who turned away (Luke 18). Our own agendas and desires may disqualify us even after pursuing Jesus with a declared interest to follow (Luke 9). We might be baffled when Jesus sends us in an unexpected direction (Mark 5).
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. – Jesus (Luke 9:23-24)
“Taking us our cross” is Jesus’ way of describing our unconditional response to him. These are some of his most often quoted words. If we can embrace them, we’ll find ourselves surprisingly free. We’ll find ourselves free to embrace everything he has done for us. We’ll find ourselves taking pleasure in a regular lifestyle of church, prayer, study, and devotion. And we’ll readily take the big steps of faith as he prompts us and gives us opportunity.
Hebrews 12 is a great passage. It is loaded with principles that, if lived out, amount to living a great life before God and others.
Of the many things that could be highlighted from this passage, there is a little statement about halfway through that I’ve been particular fond of for some time:
See that no one is…unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. (Hebrews 12:16)
This verse references a story from the Old Testament found in Genesis 25. It’s only a few verses, so I’ll share them here to catch all of us up on the story.
Once when Jacob (Esau’s brother) was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank an rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:29-34)
In Jewish culture back in those days, the firstborn son held a prominent place in the family and received a greater inheritance than any of the other siblings. This was Esau’s lot in life. This was his identity and destiny. He was to carry on the family name and receive not only his father’s blessing, but the greatest portion of the family inheritance.
This identity is what he traded away for a bowl of soup. He scorned his future inheritance for immediate gratification. He traded his destiny to satisfy a compulsive desire.
It’s been a while, but as parents, we hear this type of statement from time to time. When the kids want a snack and dinner isn’t quite ready… “But I’ll die if I don’t eat right now.” The same type of response occasionally surfaces when it’s time to do chores or homework.
Unfortunately, many of us never learn to deny our impulses. The world exhibits the consequences every day. Adulterous affairs resulting from a desire to “just do it” without any thought or restraint resulting in the trading away of family and character, often at incredible financial, relational, and personal cost. There are countless financial and physical manifestations as well from embezzlement to obesity – still resulting from the same inability to resist a momentary compulsion.
Unfortunately, this is “normal.” It’s how people behave. It’s everywhere in our culture from advertising to the compulsive commentary so infamous on social media. But in the face of this normalcy, the author of Hebrews calls us to be different.
We’re called to be set apart. We’re called to remember our identity and destiny as human beings created in God’s image. We’re called to deny destructive impulses because we’re a people created to reflect God’s goodness and character in everything we do. We’re invited to remember that we were created by God to share in his governance of all creation. We’re invited to remember that we’ll ultimate give an account for the way we live and what we do with our lives.
We were created for much more than normal. Never forget that. Never forget the story that we’re a part of. God created this whole thing. He created us to have a role in it – to reflect him, to take care of things, and to be a blessing in everything we do. This is our identity. Let’s learn to live accordingly.
Become who you were born to be.
This is one of my favorite lines. It’s from Return of the King (LOTR) when Elrond brings Aragorn (the rightful king) his sword before a pending, epic battle for Middle Earth. As Elrond stands before Aragorn, it’s at a time when all seems lost. It would be much easier to run and hide. It would be easier to ignore the surrounding circumstances and to opt for small dreams and selfish pursuits.
It reminds of an alternative quip that is somewhat popular today – “Be you.” It sounds so cute and encouraging. Don’t get me wrong, I love individuality and the courage to be different. But we should be wary when this sentiment is used to encourage rash or compulsive behavior. Like when you want to default on your responsibilities, don’t worry about it. Be you. Can’t afford something, but really want it anyway? Go for it! Be you. Want that experience, but worried about the consequences or feeling some angst? Just be you.
The issue at stake is the “you” in reference in any given situation. The challenge in the world today is that we’re often not very patient or self-controlled. (See: Fast food, credit card debt, social media commentary, etc…) And the “you” that most of us really want to be, at least in our best moments, is not readily within our grasp. It requires a process of becoming. It requires years of discipline and perseverance. It requires making the hard decisions over and over again.
Think about your life like a map.
- Where do you want to go? Who do you want to become?
- Where are you today? What kind of person are you right now?
- What’s the path from here to there? What will it take? What price are you willing to pay? What steps will get you from here to there?
With this in mind, by all means, be you. Become you. The journey may be long and it may be challenging at times along the way. But it will be worth it. Every hard decision will be worth it. The patience and perseverance you learn along the way will be worth it. So go. Become who you were born to be.
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a parable that is one of my favorites. I’ll paraphrase the main ideas here, but you should really take a minute to read it and mull it over. In the parable, a farmer is planting a field. As he is casting seeds, Jesus describes various fates as an allusion to how people respond to hearing about the good news of God’s kingdom. Some seeds are trampled or eaten. Others take root in shallow, rocky, or weedy soil and fail to produce a crop. Finally, some seeds fall into good soil and have a return of 30, 60, or 100 fold. And in the end, the only thing that really seems to matter is whether or not the seed bears its intended fruit.
As the people are left scratching their heads, Jesus explains the parable to his disciples. First, people are fruitful because they don’t really understand what’s going on. Second, people aren’t rooted enough to sustain growth over the time and to the degree that is necessary. Finally, the cares of the world choke out God’s word and prevent fruitfulness.
Character and Support.
Holy. (Set apart.)
I’d like to share a few thoughts on this parable from the perspective of a dad and a person who really loves to see God working in people’s lives. The truth is, if we’re going to become the men and women that God created us to be, we’re going to have to understand a few things about Jesus, about God’s kingdom, about how this whole thing comes together, and about what it all means for us. We’re also going to need to become a rooted people – we’re going to need to embrace the lifelong, tedious, painful, and extraordinary process of character formation as well the fellowship of others who can support, encourage, and strengthen us along the way. Finally, we’re going to have to be a different, holy people set apart from the world in our priorities, concerns, attitudes, habits, and behavior.
Because God is good and because he created us with unfathomable potential, we can expect that he’ll be working in us toward these ends as he shapes us throughout our lives into sons and daughters that are ready to inherit his kingdom and his reign over all creation. Our part is to submit to God’s work in us and to cooperate with him. In other words, invest yourself in understanding more about what God is up to in the Bible. Understand what was taking place in the big picture with Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. Embrace character formation and tweak your lifestyle to cooperate with God and to continue growing. Embrace fellowship with people who will catalyze God’s work in you. And finally, learn to be a different kind of person than the rest of the world despite the pain and the cost along the way.
These are the big ideas of Matthew 13 that I’ve been contemplating over the past several days. In Part 2, I’ll unpack them a bit more from the perspective of a dad (and friend and pastor) and offer some thoughts as to a way forward in response.