This has thus far been the hardest posting for me to write. And although our family has been plagued with multiple illnesses including some flu-type virus (although not the flu according to the doctor) for the past month (which does account for why this post is tardy; sorry!), I think it is more about the heart of the matter than the timing (I know, imagine that right?!). My initial draft began with a witty and somewhat sarcastic description of Valentine’s day; observing the convenience of discussing love around this time of year and venting some of my own issues with such a commercialized expression of love (I really am ok with Valentine’s day, but I also like to make fun of it 🙂 ). But as the posting became wordier and wordier, I realized it was more about “me” speaking than really addressing the important subject at hand: the relationship between LOVE and obedience.
Not Valentine’s Day love, not romantic love between a husband and wife, and not even parental love between a guardian and child (which is often considered the purest of all). No, we are talking about the ORIGINAL kind of love, the kind we were ultimately created for, the truest love in the truest sense. It is the love that changes lives, that turns people around, that stops us in our tracks and pulls us back to our senses, that picks us up when we are broken and mends all of the hurt within us, that looks on us with beauty and grace when all we see is ugly and guilt; it is the love that envelops us and moves from the inside out and only exists because He first loved us. It is the love between Creator and created… and it can only come from above.
The whole point of last and this week’s reading is bridging the gap between this kind of love and our choices in life: there is a direct connection/relationship between our experience of this love and our obedience (actions). If we want our actions that speak louder than our words to truly show and say that we are bearing fruit, abiding and getting as close to Christ as we can, and obeying (following Him), then this all must come from an inner motivator. And the most powerful motivator of all is this kind of LOVE.
The Power of Love
As you can imagine, there are a variety of motivators behind why we do what we do. When it comes to the obedience we discussed last week, Warren singles out 3 motivators for us to focus upon and assess in our own lives to see what is driving our choices to obey or lack thereof. Take a look:
- Fear: Everytime I see this one I think about any big decisions I have had to make as an adult. From which college I should attend, to whether or not we should really get married, to buying our first car and then our first house, I am always motivated mostly by fear when it comes to obedience about these things. I want so badly to obey, mainly because I am so scared I am going to screw-up and ruin my life (and now the lives of my husband and children as well ) if I do not make the right choice. I cry out to God in desperation because I am in FEAR of what will happen if this is not the right choice. And while it may sound like crying out to God brings me closer to Him, I find that I actually feel distant from Him because when I am operating in FEAR mode, He is this far-away mean God waiting to punish me if I step out of line. I envision Him outside of His true character (which is not very nice) and only loving when I make the “right” choice. And there has to be a “right” choice, right? Well, during one of these “fearfully” obedient moments, I will never forget the counsel of a trusted Christian friend who encouraged me that maybe there was not only one “right” choice, but that God was giving me full liberty to choose from any of the choices and He would bless all of them. Say what?! I know it’s crazy, but it makes total sense now that I am a parent. On any given Saturday, I might ask my son: would you like to go to the zoo or the aquarium? And there is no right or wrong answer, just very cool but different things at both. Is it not totally possible that God looks at some of our decisions the same way? Would you like to live in Virginia or Texas? Would you like to work here or over there? Would you like to keep renting your apartment or move into a house? Would you like to attend this college or that college? Puts all of those big decisions into a totally different perspective huh? Now, while it still does not answer the question, it has always helped me move from FEAR mode to LOVE mode (which I will describe below).
There is another way to look at fear in terms of obedience that is worth mentioning. Some of us choose to obey because we are scared of the consequences of our decisions. We have been raised to believe that the second we step outside of the line, bad things will happen and so we stay as safe and secure and as far away from the line as possible. We always obey, but we do so out of obligation and being scared and we feel oppressed, imprisoned and like we are missing out. We probably also feel incredibly distant from a warm and loving and personable God because we only know rigid, harsh, significant rules with swift and just consequences. While our actions might be outwardly “obedient,” they still have not hit the mark for truly abiding and fruit bearing because we are still missing the importance of freedom and grace. Whenever fear is our primary motivator, it does not last and it causes both us and God pain.
- Rewards: This one is my jam (which is probably not a good thing; but truthful)! I love getting rewarded for things (#onlychildperfectionist). Whether it is a rewards program for the places I frequently shop or a rewards credit card or a reading rewards program or any type of rewards really, I love them! I have even mastered the art of self-rewards, which got me through my multiple degrees (I would focus on school work for a couple of hours, and then get a treat like Starbucks or something yummy to eat). And honestly, this is probably my default motivation for obeying. When I am nice to my husband, I get the typical reward of him being nice to me too. When I am nice to my kids, I get the typical reward of them behaving. When I obey what God wants for me, I know that over the years, it typically results in my favor so I might as well keep with it right? Of course?!
Except… what happens when that line of thinking does not work right away or at all? For instance, I have been praying for something for years now that has still not come into existence. Even though I have prayed in faith, walked in faith, heard things like “soon” and “it’s coming” which I know are all true, it does not yet exist. My reward is not here, even though I have obeyed. Or what about when you have been super nice to your husband, gone out of your way to make sure the house is clean, his favorite dinner is made to perfection, and made plans for the two of you to hang out after the kids go to bed only to find its been a bad day at work, he is in a bad mood, and he falls asleep before you are finished putting your little ones to sleep? Again, the intended reward did not work out. When we obey solely for the rewards, there will come a time when the reward does not happen or does not suffice, and we may be encouraged to either no longer obey or become resentful in any obedience that does still occur. Plus, this type of obedience is really, honestly, self-focused with a “what can I get out of this” attitude. While on the outside it might get things accomplished temporarily, on the inside the inner peace and security depend on the outcome and there is no consistency to who we are and how we feel.
- LOVE: While both fear and rewards are quick to lead to obedience depending on your experiences, there is one motivator that has been most powerful ever since the creation of all that we know. It has been written about, sang about, lived out and sacrificed for throughout the ages, and we know it as the concept of LOVE. It can be defined as adoration, pleasurable, positive, kind, affectionate, devoted feelings toward someone or something and when in its purest form (as described above) it has a life-changing, life-giving, life-sustaining power. When we truly love someone or something with this pure self-sacrificial love, we will do everything we can to move towards that person or thing no matter the cost. This love is so powerful because it does not matter if there is something to be feared or whether or not the reward manifests, because ALL that matters, hear me, ALL THAT MATTERS is the object of affection.
This is Paul obeying Christ right into prison and still singing hymns, out of his great LOVE for his Savior and knowing that even though the “rewards” were not evident, he was still going to love. This is Christ loving us all the way to hell and back, because the only thing that truly mattered was relationship and salvation with us. In something a little more little, this is you putting a blanket on your husband and smiling after your evening gets ruined because all that mattered was showing your love for him and now he is resting so at least he benefited (I wish I could say that was me; but there is a reason I used you in this example). This is me continuing to pray and trust and hope and obey year after year after year trusting in LOVE that God is going to come through in His perfect timing even though it does not seem like it in the moment. How does the scripture go? And the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Can I make a quick observation here? Both fear and rewards have been used for years to train animals through schedules of either pain (fear) or treat (reward) in scientific learning theory. Both are successful methods, which is why parents end up using them as well (spanking versus bribing LOL), although some schedules do work better than others (but that is for another time). But you know what is interesting: we are supposed to be more than just plain animals right? The thing that really sets us apart is our ability to reason and will, and with that, have the ability to LOVE and put that love into action. Now, I know from personal experiences that animals love too so please do not hear me saying that, but instead listen to the higher calling to search out your own heart and see if you are operating out of an innate, flesh, learned response (like that of a trained animal) or if you are obeying out of a chosen, desired, will to love the Creator of the universe?
How does this apply to me?
As you can envision, this secret gets to the core of who we are and our relationship with the Lord. Just like Ordering Your Private World, we have now reached the inner layer of the secret to living an abundant life, and that is all about how we love. And not just how we love others, because believe it or not, that might actually be easier, but how we love God, which includes our thoughts, feelings, and by default, our actions (obedience) when it comes to Him.
Since a lot of this conversation thus far has been abstract (things like fear and rewards and love oh my!), let’s see if I can make it a tad more practical (if not for you, then definitely for me). When I talk about love in a human sense, like for a couple or a parent-child relationship or even among two friends, I can always rely on the “love tank” picture. I cannot take credit for it, although I also cannot cite its original source because I have no clue who said or copyrighted it first, but its a well known metaphor in the counseling realm.
Much like the cars we drive have a gas tank that fuels the engine to make the car move, the relationships we invest in have a love tank that fuel the relationship to allow it to grow and progress and make positive gains. When we do things like spend positive time together, take care of one another, do things especially for the other person, it is like making a stop at the gas station to fill the tank. As life occurs and we move throughout events and circumstances, we expend our energy, and our love tank becomes depleted unless we make conscious efforts to refill it. And so on and so forth for as long as we own the vehicle, or participate in the relationship. To evaluate where we are in our relationships, I have partners draw a fuel gauge like the one below and rate where they would say their own feelings of love are currently located. Then, we brainstorm ways to get them closer to full and start a regular evaluation to maintain these levels.
When this same principle is applied to our relationship with God, we can definitely sketch out a fuel gauge and determine whether our love tank is closer to empty or closer to full. However, you, like me, may have been deceived in thinking that you are responsible for filling your love tank just like you are in your human relationships. While ownership is awesome when it comes to your human relationships (and I am all about it and encourage it as a counselor), when it comes to our relationship with God, it is actually supposed to look different. This is where the power of that original LOVE combines with the power of abiding and get its awesome life-changing, life-giving, life-sustaining powers.
When we abide; we hook our love tank up to the God of the Universe, and HE fills us up until we are overflowing. We do not have to buy Him flowers, get involved in expansive ministries, give huge tithes or spend all of our time at church or in Bible study or singing praise songs to fill our tanks. It starts with simply inviting Him to love in and through you, opening yourself to be a vessel (or branch) of this love, and letting Him do the rest. As our love tanks fill as we abide in Him, we want to do all of those things because we cannot contain all the amazing love (like a car that just has to race because it is full with the best fuel out there). We want to obey, not our of defeating or selfish motives like fear or rewards, but out of genuine desire to enact this love through obedience.
This may not be a big deal for you, but this is HUGE for me. I am a “works” girl; hence my tendency to obey for the rewards. All week I have been trying to work on loving God (even though I have really not “felt” it) because if I am going to write about it I should be doing it right?! Except, this is one thing that I do not have to and honestly, cannot work at (lightbulb!!). This is the thing that gets at so many “Christians” because it cannot be practiced, manufactured, or created on our own. This is something we have to let God do; something I have to rest in, allow in, enjoy in… and when I finally stopped working so hard to make it happen (about 5 minutes ago to be exact), my whole demeanor, countenance, and perspective changed. My God-love tank went from 0 to overflowing in about 10 seconds (OK maybe a little longer), when I finally surrendered the pressure and determination to make it happen and let Him fill it up. Not because of anything I actually did, but from the stopping of trying to do and just allowing myself to abide and be.
So What do I do now?
I bet you can already see where this is going. Using the graphic described above, I encourage you to set aside a moment each day or couple of days this week to check your God-love tank. It should not take very long, almost the same amount of time it takes for you to glance at the dash of your car and see if you need to stop by the gas station on your next trip out. Are you close to empty or overflowing? This question quickly leads to: are you connected and abiding or unplugged and trying to go it on your own? Are you obeying out of this love, or out of fear or rewards? Where do you want to be? What will you do to get there?
Believe it or not, after writing the above words last night about being “oh so full,” I not only disconnected from the computer as I closed up for the night, but I seriously disconnected from the Lord as well. Which meant this morning, I was desperately dry and my God-love tank was screaming EMPTY as I was attempting to care for my children. We all knew it, and so I took a few moments to look at my gauge, speak to the Lord, and breathe in a prayer to be filled. I thought about the picture of that branch in the vineyard, resting so peacefully and being sustained and filled by the vine, and I let the love flow into my tank. It was by no means a miraculous, quick fill, but it was steadfast and sure and I have been loving, obeying, abiding, and fruit bearing the rest of the day. And that picture has stayed with me so that I could share it not only with my boys, but with you too. I am so incredibly grateful for this gift… and for that amazing, awesome power of love.♥