Knowing God’s nature is the key to understanding the things He says. Most of the mistakes people have made in interpreting the whisperings of God in their hearts have resulted from not understanding God’s nature. Have you ever been misquoted, or had your words taken out of context? Then you know how God feels. Fortunately, it hasn’t made Him clam up. We do, however, need to have a proper context for interpreting His words.
A good starting place for understanding God’s words is to remember that everything He tells us to do, He does. To put it another way, Jesus practices what He preaches. If He tells us to do good, we can know that He does good. If He tells us to forgive, we can know that He forgives. Therefore, we can better understand God’s words when we look at His behavior. In looking at His behavior we have something to imitate. In the imitating, we come to understand better what the words mean…and why there is always a reason to love.
Who Do You Want To Be Like?
When you were growing up, who did you want to be like? One lazy summer day I saw a movie about John Paul Jones and wanted nothing more out of life than to be a naval officer…until the next weekly matinée when someone else was the hero. Most of those years I wanted to be like Mickey Mantle and hit home runs for a living. When I became a teenager, my interests turned to music and I wanted to write songs like Burt Bacharach.
Having heroes is how we grow up. In looking up to them, we lift our sights and reach for higher things in life. It’s harder for children to find heroes today. And many of the heroes they do choose, fall off the pedestal. That’s one more reason why we parents need to be all the more mindful of our behavior – our kids are looking up to us.
You don’t have to be a child to want or need heroes. Adults also have cravings for models to follow. In fact, viewed spiritually, adulthood is a second childhood. Our first childhood had earthly parents, who, even if they were wonderful, were still flawed. Our second childhood – that is, our spiritual way of looking at adulthood – has God for a parent, in whom no imperfections can be found. (By the way, if having problem children marks you as a poor parent then what are we to say about God who has had more of them than anyone?)
To have Jesus as our hero provides the ultimate raising of our sights. His character shines so brightly, however, that it’s often more productive to break down its facets for glimpsing one at a time. In view of this need, the Bible is a hall of fame, providing stories of various humans who each exhibited one or more – but not all – of God’s character traits. For example, in Moses, we see God’s longsuffering and stamina. In David, we see God’s courage and emotion. In Solomon, we see God’s wisdom. In Jeremiah, we see God’s concern. In Isaiah, we see God’s hope. Each hero reveals a facet of the greatest hero of all. Taken together, they provide a composite picture of Him.
I have my own modern-day heroes. I could tell you who they are but you probably wouldn’t know any of them. They’re not famous. Except to me. I know a woman who nurses her invalid husband, takes care of children to earn income, and all the while keeps her house and yard looking better than mine. She never complains or acts like she’s got a rough time of things. She acts happy to be doing all she’s doing. I wish I was more like her. She’s my hero. I could tell you of a hundred other people, facing problems courageously, who also inspire me, but you probably know a hundred such people already.
Isn’t it humbling just to consider some of the wonderful people who live in this world? We can find much moral pleasure just in reflecting on the many kind things that some people do. I was once trying to get my car inspected. Time was running out to meet the state deadline and I left it at a service station with the understanding that the work would be done that day. When I returned, it had not been done and the person behind the desk said they would not be able to get to it at all, even though this would mean I’d be subject to a fine for not having the completed the inspection that day. I was under a number of other pressures at that particular time in my life. It all reached a boiling point when I heard those words and I said simply the word, “No!” It wasn’t a yell, but it was loud enough that every employee and customer in the room stopped when they heard it. No one moved; no one spoke. It was one of those eternal minutes. Then, breaking the awkward silence, a mechanic in the back spoke up and said, “I’ll do the inspection.” He took the keys from my hand and did the work right then.
Am I embarrassed to tell this story? Of course. I’m ashamed of how I let anxiety build up in me to the point where all I could do was angrily protest with a monosyllable. But that mechanic helped me out. He not only did something for me that I couldn’t do for myself, he overlooked my childish behavior and kept me from looking more foolish than I already did. He made me want to grow up…and be more like him. And I might as well tell you he was at least ten years younger than me.
Each hero we have is a rung in a ladder that leads to God. Every time we see a godly character trait in a fellow human, we have a specific goal to strive for. In achieving the goal, we make the trait our own and come another step closer to God’s overall character. And in climbing this ladder, we come to find something else. We find that true maturity is understanding what God means by “love.” We could never have understood love without taking those steps. For love takes on a whole new meaning once you’ve gone from observing it to doing it.
Everyone knows that we’re supposed to love one another. The Bible says so. Even people who don’t believe the Bible teach this principle to their children. We even call our family and friends “loved ones.” That word love, however, can be stretched to some mighty different meanings. Consider how we also say, “I love ice cream.” Or it could be french fries, football games, or fifty million other things. When we say we love these things, we mean that we love what they do for us. They meet our wants or needs and for that reason we speak highly of them and are committed to them.
Take ice cream, for example. If you love ice cream, it’s because it makes the taste buds happy and satisfies the appetite. If the bowl of ice cream turns out to be sour, though, you want no part of it. Swallowing the stuff is out of the question. You feel no need to bear with the bitterness of that bowl of nauseating curds. The ice cream exists for our interests only. We are under no obligation to serve its interests. A person who eats a bowl of sour ice cream for the sake of the ice cream would be considered strange indeed. The normal love of ice cream excludes all bad dishes of it. This is a kind of love that is completely selfish.
The love that God is wanting us to practice with each other is completely selfless. The word love, therefore, can refer to a motivation that is totally self-oriented or one that is totally selfless. That’s a pretty wide variation for one word. Both understandings of the word are legitimate and used all the time, though, so we’re just going to have to distinguish the meanings in our own minds.
What do we mean when we say that we love our families, friends, and others? If we love them the way God does, it means we consider their interests more important than our own. If we love them in the ice cream sort of way, it means we consider our own interests foremost. What is probably true for most of us is that our love lies somewhere between these two extremes. Growing up spiritually means moving in the direction of God’s definition of love; that is, purifying our hearts of selfish desires which masquerade as love.
The love God wants us to practice keeps the other person’s best interests front and center. It doesn’t mean making ourselves a doormat, but it might mean making ourselves a threshold. That auto mechanic didn’t demean himself by forgiving my outburst and performing the inspection. I sensed no fear in him, as if he was afraid I was about to make an even bigger scene. He made a calm decision to go the extra mile. Because of his act, I stepped across a threshold of realization, and I hope I never go back to letting my emotions so control me.
Making the Choices
God’s idea is that we make the myriads of choices we face each day with the other person’s best interest in mind. This applies both to big decisions and to little ones. It takes more time to make choices this way, but the moral pleasure that results is incredibly satisfying. It is the ultimate reason to keep living.
There may be a difference between putting another person’s best interests first and doing what that person wants. If Jesus had always done what everyone wanted, He wouldn’t be the Savior of the world. Though He healed multitudes, you could hardly call Him a people-pleaser. Every parent knows that putting the child’s best interest first sometimes means displeasing the child. Dressing properly, going to school, and personal hygiene are all habits that are grudgingly cultivated by children. Putting other people’s interests ahead of your own can sometimes make you very unpopular (“I hate Mommy and Daddy because they won’t let me do what I want!”). Even though you’re not called to parent other adults, you’ll find that they, too, don’t always appreciate when you’re doing something with their best interest in mind. No one experienced this unpopularity more vividly and dramatically than Jesus when He was rejected to the point of crucifixion.
Heaven is the context in which all our choices can be made. It’s not only the destination to which we’re all headed, it’s a dimension in which we can now live. Making choices in the light of heaven, and putting other people’s interests above our own, transforms human life into an expression of love. Like Jesus, you may not always be understood, but time is on your side, for heaven will eventually reveal all the thinking behind your earthly deeds. And in the meantime, you can find much more meaning in life, knowing within yourself that you are doing it for love. Just remember to do it all out of love for the unseen God who sees everything. It cannot escape His notice.
Becoming Like God
It’s in the making of choices that we can become like God. It’s in the complexion of our soul, not in the color of our skin, that we can resemble God. When we face a choice between self-interest and concern for others, and choose as He would choose, we become as He is. The more we become as He is, the more we can understand how He thinks. The more we understand how He thinks, the better we can understand the things He says – whether they’re written in the Bible, heard deep in our hearts, or coming out of the mouth of babes.