Living in Tennessee is a very different cultural experience from living in Illinois. One of the contrasts I have noticed is the frequent appearance of “Lord willing” in conversation. When you’re talking with some folks, every expression of intent or hope for the future is punctuated with “Lord willing”.
This comes from James 4:15, where James urges us to frame our plans with the statement, “if the Lord wills”. However, the context is not about saying magic words to make sure bad things don’t happen to us. It’s about having the right spirit. In fact, people who use “Lord willing” can become entrapped in many of the same pitfalls that await people who say, “O my God!”
Of course, there is nothing wrong with uttering those three words. They appear in the Psalms and in many hymns that we sing. However, problems arise when we say, “O my God!” flippantly or thoughtlessly. I am not among those who believe that saying it constitutes taking the Lord’s name in vain as per Exodus 20:7 (which I believe is about swearing false oaths), but that doesn’t make it acceptable.
Invoking the name of the Holy One of Israel is a solemn thing. One of the greatest privileges we have, one purchased with the blood of Christ, is the right to call upon the name of the LORD. When we do so carelessly, we display irreverence toward the One whom we are commanded to revere. It is dangerous to treat the Almighty in such a cavalier fashion!
So too, we must make sure that we speak reverently of the purposes of God. In James 4:13-16, James condemns the arrogance of those who make confident plans about the future. He points out that none of us can guarantee that we will survive even tomorrow. Before the awesome, unchanging God, all of us are nothing more than a passing vapor.
“Lord willing,” then, is supposed to be more than a verbal good-luck charm. Instead, James is urging us, every time we talk about the future, to think long and hard about how uncertain our place in that future is.
We don’t like doing that. We want to believe that we are the ones in control, that everything will shape up according to our desires. If nothing else, 2020 should have highlighted the foolishness of that conviction. When we believe we’re in the driver’s seat of our own lives and speak accordingly, we’re boasting, whether the phrase “Lord willing” passes our lips or not.
Instead, we should use “Lord willing” as an opportunity to humble ourselves before our Maker. We should remind ourselves of how foolish and feeble we are, especially when compared to the wisdom and power of God. We also should view it as an acknowledgment of our subjection before His will. Someone who says “Lord willing” and then goes out and sins clearly does not mean it!
We must mean it, whether we say it or not. “Lord willing” ought to call us to fix our minds upon the sovereignty of God, each day and each hour. May we live accordingly!
People do things for reasons. Well, unless they’re morons, they do. As a rule, the larger the change is, the more compelling the reason behind it.
As Proverbs 4:23 observes, these reasons proceed from the heart. This is not the Western heart, as in “the seat of the emotions”, but rather the Eastern mind-and-heart, the place where reason and emotion intersect. In fact, I think that one of the great weaknesses of Western thought is its failure to acknowledge the interplay of the two in the human mind.
In consequence, whenever I hear someone announce that they have changed their mind about something purely through disinterested logical consideration, I become suspicious. This is particularly true when something else in their lives is providing powerful motivation for them to change their minds.
Here, consider the man who “restudies” Matthew 19 after his daughter gets divorced and—surprise!—reaches a different conclusion on the text, or the church that “reconsiders” 1 Timothy 2 in a feminist age and decides that women in the pulpit are OK after all. In both cases, the restudiers will loudly insist that they were motivated only by the love of truth, despite the circumstances that make their new beliefs convenient. Nonetheless, I raise a skeptical eyebrow.
I will confess that I feel a similar upward tugging in my forehead whenever a Christian, typically a young Christian, proclaims that they have become an atheist. In such cases, the rhetoric doesn’t vary much. The newly minted unbeliever will talk at length about how hard this was for them, how they are acting against their own interests, and how only their determination to follow reason wherever it goes has led them to this point. At times I wonder if there’s a “How to Come Out as an Atheist” script online.
Again, my time on planet Earth leads me to believe people act because they want to, not because they don’t want to. The problem is, though, that atheism itself doesn’t offer much intrinsic motivation. Christianity does. If you buy into the Christian belief system, you get God, absolute right and wrong, meaning, people who care about you, and the promise of eternal life. I think even atheists would acknowledge that it’s a powerfully attractive set of ideas!
Atheism, though, offers no absolute morality, no meaning, and no hope. Life is a small span of suffering before the universe squishes you into oblivion. Admittedly, atheism might give you the satisfaction of believing that you’re smarter than the believers, but feelings of intellectual superiority only get us so far. You only can join Mensa once.
Instead, in my experience, if you probe a little bit, underneath the intellectual superstructure of atheism, there lurk powerful (if reluctantly acknowledged) motivations behind such a dramatic life change. I’ve seen them include:
- Grief at the loss of a loved one.
- Objection to the moral teaching of the Bible, particularly about homosexuality.
- Resentment of bad treatment by Christians.
- Distaste for the perceived connection between Christianity and political conservatism.
- An unbelieving spouse.
I have no trouble understanding how any of those things would move someone to leave the church and the Lord. The problem is, though, that they don’t provide intellectual cover for such a change. You might not like the God who does such rotten-to-you things, has such rotten-to-you followers, or makes your personal life so inconvenient. However, none of those things justify the conclusion that God doesn’t exist.
They do, though, leave you very receptive to the possibility that He might not exist. If you are of a mind to do so, you can evaluate both creation and the Bible in such a way as to lead to the conclusion that God is not real. In fact, Romans 1 and 2 Thessalonians 2 promise that if you want to reject God, He will give you the rope you need to hang yourself. It is hardly surprising, then, when people who want to leave the faith find the justification they’re seeking.
This process is, to say the least, intensely frustrating to watch. Often, concerned brethren try to restore the atheist to fellowship by attacking their intellectual conclusions. Sadly, that’s about as effective as trying to kill a dandelion by pulling the leaves off. As long as the roots are there, the leaves will be back soon, and somebody who doesn’t want to believe in God never will have any trouble manufacturing reasons not to.
Instead, we must reckon with the underlying motivations. We need to be able to have those discussions about theodicy and to critically examine our society’s conviction that sexual autonomy is the preeminent human value. We need to make sure that our behavior isn’t alienating others.
Sometimes, we simply must acknowledge that the motivation isn’t susceptible to reason. Somebody who goes atheist because of their spouse probably will stay atheist as long as they’re married. Indeed, even attempts to address the reasoned component of a motivation are not certain to succeed. However, atheism that starts with want-to must end there too.
The longer I serve the Lord, the more I gain an appreciation for the cunning of the devil. I don’t like it one little bit, of course, but I have to give him credit for how effectively he works, even in the lives of Christians. His ultimate goal for all of us is to lead us to hell, but short of that, he labors tirelessly to make all of us less effective disciples than we ought to be.
In this effort, one of his primary tools is distraction. He would prefer to distract us with the worries and cares of life, but if he can’t do that, he will use even the smaller commandments of God’s law. This is what he did with the Pharisees. They got so caught up in the details of the law that they forgot justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
This certainly can happen to us, so what I’d like to do this evening is to examine the greatest commandment of all: love. A couple of weeks ago, Landon suggested that I ought to preach on 1 John 5:3, but as I looked at the context, I decided there were things there that I had to tie in too. As part of our yearly focus on living for Jesus, then, let’s consider living God’s love.
In the passage that we’re going to be looking at, which stretches from the end of 1 John 4 through the beginning of 1 John 5, I see three major themes. The first of these is LOVE AND FEAR. Look at 1 John 4:16-18. The first thing that we learn in this context is how essential love is to our spiritual lives. John tells us that if we remain in love, God remains in us, and we remain in God. Here’s what I think this is saying: If we live lives that are filled with love, our actions show God to those around us, and we remain in fellowship with Him. On the other hand, if we do not remain in love, we fail to glorify Him, and we stray from Him.
John then goes on to point to two consequences of remaining in love: confidence in the day of judgment and casting out fear. The first calls us to a global let’s-be-honest check. Right now, considering my life as a whole, does my life express God’s love, or does it express selfishness? If the former, we can be easy in our minds about the state of our souls. If the latter, we desperately need to change!
Finally, let’s consider the interplay between love and fear, not only at the judgment, but throughout our lives as well. Often, we think of love and hatred as opposites, but John wants us to understand that love and fear are too. Love values others, but fear values the self. As a result, the devil is able to use fear to lead us to harm others in ways that we think protect us. I think this is evident in the news right now. As fear increases, evildoing does too. In God, though, we don’t have to be afraid. He will protect us, so His love frees us to love others.
This takes us to our second main theme, the relationship between LOVE AND THE BRETHREN. Here, let’s read 1 John 4:19-5:1. I said that the previous section had a let’s-be-honest check. I think this one is a check on our honesty. It’s very easy to blithely say that we live a life filled with love, but actually living that love-filled life is not easy!
John zeroes in on one litmus test: our love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Sad to say, the relationships between brethren are not always marked by unfailing love. All of us who have been Christians for very long have seen brethren get into it. Maybe we’ve been the brethren who have gotten into it!
Regardless, all of us need to pay attention here. All of us claim to love God. That’s why we’re here tonight. However, John tells us that if we make that claim but don’t love our brother, we are lying, we are making loving God impossible, we are breaking God’s commandments, and we are rejecting His spiritual family. Basically, failing to love other Christians is a spiritual train wreck.
This tells us, then, that if we want to go to heaven, we have to get down there in the mud and do the backbreaking, heartbreaking work of loving one another. The problems don’t come when we’re dealing with Christians who are lovable. As Jesus said, even the sinners and tax collectors love people who treat them well.
Instead, this gets difficult when we are faced with Christians who do not behave well and are not particularly lovable. Because the devil is hard at work, this happens all the time. Our brothers and sisters frequently say offensive things, gossip, behave rudely, and generally make nuisances of themselves!
Even then, we still are called to love them. We must not become angry or hateful ourselves. We must not return evil for evil. We must put on a heart of patience, compassion, and kindness. By our willingness to imitate the perfect love of God, we show our love for Him.
Finally, let’s contemplate LOVE AND OBEDIENCE. Our reading for the day concludes in 1 John 5:2-3. We see 1 John 5:3 quoted by itself a lot as a way of emphasizing the importance of obedience. I don’t think that’s a misuse of the passage, exactly. Indeed, I think it generally is true that love for God and commandment-keeping go together. You don’t have commandment-keeping without love for God, and you don’t have love for God without commandment-keeping.
However, contextually, there’s more going on than simply that. V. 3 isn’t just an unconnected proverb floating in space. Instead, when we look at v. 2, we see that it ties back to the discussion of loving God’s children. This is another honesty check. Just as we show that we love God by loving His children, we show that we love His children by keeping His commandments, especially with respect to them.
Here too, it’s easy to see how we go astray. Plenty of Christians duck the force of the end of chapter 4 by insisting that they do love other Christians, really they do! However, once you start comparing what they’re doing to other Christians to their claim of love, a different picture emerges.
They say that they love other Christians, but they get in arguments with other Christians all the time. They say that they love other Christians, but they are rude and abrasive in what they say to them. They say that they love other Christians, but they insist on getting their own way instead of allowing other Christians to have theirs.
It may be that at this point in the sermon, we’ve got this little smile on our faces, and we’re thinking of names of brethren who were like that. Let me tell you what, brethren: we need to be thinking of our own name. I think it’s fair to conclude from John’s words here that godliness is most difficult within our own family and within our own congregation. If we will struggle with anything, we will struggle with this. We need to be vigilant against the appearance of sin in our hearts and our lives, and we need to dedicate ourselves to living out the love of God with respect to one another.
It is sad but true that often, the most emphatic refutation of doctrinal error is another error. Consider, for instance, Martin Luther’s reaction to the Renaissance Catholic practice of selling indulgences. He objected, and rightly so, to the notion that we could purchase our salvation, whether with money or with righteous actions.
However, he concluded that only faith, apart from any action whatsoever, is all that is necessary for salvation. That’s no more correct than the sale of indulgences is! In their turn, some brethren, in response to faith-only salvation, have taught that we earn our way to heaven, which also is not true. And so the cycle continues.
I believe a similar process is at work in the way that many Christians handle John 10:28. This is a famous Calvinist proof text. They argue that it teaches the doctrine of eternal security, that once someone is saved, it is impossible for them to fall away. Most in the churches of Christ have significant problems with this claim and point to the host of passages that imply or state explicitly that falling away is possible.
However, in the course of so doing, they strip the passage of much of its comfort. They spend so much time dwelling on what the text doesn’t mean (“Yes, we can fall away! See Hebrews 6:4-8.”) that they minimize what it does mean. As a result of this and similar exegetical failures, countless Christians are uncertain of their salvation and live in fear that they have fallen away without realizing it.
The solution to the problem is to focus less on Calvinism and to focus more on the words of Christ. John 10:28 isn’t a disconnected proverb. Instead, it’s part of an argument, and all we have to do is read one verse up to see who the “they” 10:28 is. According to 10:27, Jesus is talking about the sheep who hear His voice and follow Him. Those are the sheep who cannot be snatched out of His hand. He makes no promises concerning the sheep who have stopped listening and following.
Thus, if we want to know whether the guarantee of 10:28 applies to us, all we have to do is ask whether we have met the conditions of 10:27. Do we hear His voice? This does not demand perfect comprehension of us, because no one understands God’s revelation perfectly. It does require, though, that we are interested in His voice and are seeking to understand it.
Second, do we follow Him? This does not require perfect obedience. As we learn in 1 John 1, even those who walk in the light still sin. It does mean, though, that in the overall course of our lives, we are striving to be obedient.
If these things are true of us, guess what? We’re safe! Jesus has promised to protect us, not because we’re perfect (if we were, we wouldn’t need Him) but because we aren’t. So long as we are with our Shepherd, the devil cannot snatch us out of His hand.
Of course, if we abandon our Shepherd, we place ourselves in deadly danger. However, by definition, that’s what faithful Christians haven’t done. So long as we remain faithful, then, we can be assured of inheriting eternal life, not because of ourselves, but because of the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.
Since the beginning of this year, the coronavirus has dominated the news and our attention like no other story in my lifetime. I suspect we probably haven’t seen an event this consequential since World War II. The problems brought by the pandemic are obvious: serious illness, death, economic disruption, civil disorder, and brethren arguing endlessly about masks on Facebook.
However, even though God, for reasons of His own, periodically allows the devil to wreak havoc, this still is God’s world, not Satan’s. Thus, every tragedy or disaster we encounter has something in it that we can learn from and use to grow spiritually. COVID-19 is no different. I don’t claim to know the purposes of God, but I do know that He always has a purpose, and the arc of history always will bend toward His glory.
Last week, Rufus suggested, and I agree, that we ought to consider how we should be learning and growing through the pandemic. This morning, then, let’s examine at least some of the blessings we have received from COVID-19.
The first of these is that WE ARE HUMBLED. Look at the words of David in Psalm 39:3-7. As a society, the United States tells lots of lies to itself, but the biggest probably is the lie of our own sufficiency. We live in the country of the American dream and the self-made man. According to our national narrative, it’s possible for any of us, using our own abilities, to ensure happiness for ourselves forever.
Of course, this is not true, but we go to great lengths to preserve the myth. Everything from Botox injections to nursing homes works together to hide the reality of aging and death from us. The store shelves always are full, the credit card always swipes, and the party never ends.
Well, 2020 has been the year the party ended. Death is an inescapable feature of the national conversation. A few months ago, those store shelves didn’t have any toilet paper on them. We laugh about it now, but I think all of us know in some corner of our minds that next month it could be bread and beans and rice that aren’t around. Our brightest political and scientific minds have tried to solve our problems, and they have failed to protect us.
In short, we have been stripped of our illusions of self-sufficiency. That’s why, I think, there’s an undertone of terror in the nightly news reports. People have spent their lives trusting in themselves, and now they have realized that they can’t.
I think David’s conclusion in v. 7 has to be ours. Because our lives are so short and fragile, because we are so powerless, we must put our hope in God and wait for Him. That’s a hard realization for many. When you bow before your Creator, you also must admit that He has the right to tell you what to do. That doesn’t sound as much fun as a life of sin and selfish pleasure! Nonetheless, in this time, it is plain to see that hoping in anything else or anyone else is vain.
Second, the coronavirus has DRAWN US CLOSER TOGETHER. Consider Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:21-22. Now, I recognize it sounds weird to say that this is a time of greater closeness in the church when our Sunday morning attendance is 2/3 of what it was, but I think that when all this finishes shaking out, that’s how things will be. I fear that there will be some, not many, but some, who will fall away because of it, but I think the rest of us will be closer than we were before.
I was brought up by godly parents, and ever since I left home, I’ve been faithfully attending services someplace. That means that the time of the lockdown a couple of months back was the longest time that I ever have spent without assembling with a congregation. I recognize that I was better off than most—at least I got to go to the church building and see a few Christians!
Nonetheless, the longer that time went on, the less I liked it. I heard preaching and teaching. I heard prayers. I partook of the Lord’s Supper. However, I wasn’t doing those things with all my brothers and sisters, and even though online services were the best we could do, it felt like the difference between eating a meal and pretending to eat off an empty plate. It didn’t satisfy me. Indeed, I know that right now there still are many members here who are staying at home because of health concerns, who are still trying to do the best they can with empty-plate Christianity.
When this time is over, none of us should forget that feeling. Whenever we start taking our brethren for granted, we should recall 2020 to our minds and remind ourselves how vital they are in our spiritual lives. Even now, there are things I want to do that I don’t feel like I should do. I don’t think it’s wise to try to pack 30 people into our home to study right now, and I miss that too. The fellowship that we have here is priceless, and I think God has used the virus to show us how priceless it is.
Finally, I think the events of this year should have RENEWED OUR SENSE OF MISSION. I couldn’t put that mission any better than Jesus did in Matthew 5:14-16. We are the light of the world. Through our good works, we are supposed to shine so that others will glorify God. We must remember too that the greater the darkness becomes, the more brightly our lights will shine.
Times are hard now, and they’re going to be harder in the future. There are lots of hurting people out there, and there are going to be more: those who lost loved ones to the virus, those who lost jobs, those who suffered from these times of loneliness and isolation. I don’t care who wins the election in November; no human being is going to be able to make all the pain go away.
We can’t solve everybody’s problems, but we can solve the problems that are before us. We can be generous to the poor and hungry. We can comfort the bereaved and the lonely. We can be the visible sign of the compassion of Christ.
Most of all, though, we can point those around us to God. Let’s be honest, brethren. The answers that the world has been dishing out to the coronavirus problem haven’t been very good, and increasingly, people with eyes to see will start looking for different answers.
We have answers. We have very good answers. Indeed, we have the only possible answers. The troubles of our time are too big for anybody but God. When we find people who are humbled and mourning, with compassion and love, we can lead them to Him.
I think it’s probably true that 2020 will prove to be a transformational year in the history of our country. I don’t know what the future will look like, but I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that it will prove to be a time of spiritual transformation, a third Great Awakening. It may well be that never again in our lives will we have an opportunity like this one. Let’s take advantage of it!