Going Back to the First and Greatest Commandment

Yes, because, to go straight to the heart of the matter, that is the whole purpose of our existence. Are we created to exist for ourselves, follow our own desires, build our own “empires” and reign in them like kings and queens? We can try them all for a time, but sooner or later, we will realize that apart from God, we can do nothing. Or fall upon Mark 8:36 and it’s too late:

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Even those who are already in Him but have grown or are growing cold and cynical (or doubtful, bitter, and resentful), perhaps because of the diverse trials that seem to cling like barnacles to a rock – they need this, too.

FIRST AND GREAT COMMANDMENT. This was just a quick sketch and wash on my Monologue journal but I'm quite happy.

FIRST AND GREAT COMMANDMENT. This was just a quick sketch and wash on my Monologue journal but I’m quite happy.

At the start of the year, I wrote about hope when I was grappling for inspiration and courage to face yet another year, still with the hardships of my illnesses hounding me. A week after that, I wrote about the way of being filled up with joy, as a glimmer of light and hope and a bright future seemed to dawn on my horizon. Even if only spiritually. For now.

As the week stretched to another week, love and surrender beckoned me. I so much want to shed off the weariness, the humdrum rhythm of my days and heart. I would do anything just to break it off. I want to challenge myself and coax it out of its tired stupor, as in sick and tired stupor (pun intended), and be greatly expectant of life and God’s miracles once again. For I believe there is no other way to live life than that.

So, how do we love God above all things, with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls? Do we even know how to, really know? Oh, I know of many people who do. Their lives are spelled L-O-V-E and S-A-C-R-I-F-I-C-E. They don’t live for pleasures. They don’t even think about them secretly in their hearts. Their joy is to be at the feet of Jesus many hours everyday, praising, worshiping, praying, fasting. Or trekking valleys and mountains, looking for the lost soul, holes in their tattered shoes or sandals. Yet, that’s their greatest joy and contentment. Yes, I have heard stories like these in our Church, especially those who come from the remotest parts of the provinces, where walking with their own two feet are the only available, or affordable, mode of transportation. These are those who you will never see sporting anything on your FB newsfeed. God bless them!

Then there are those who are fully blessed – spiritually, physically, materially – that they leap in joy and shout out their praises. Who wouldn’t? Even me who is weak and ailing, when the cruel claws of suffering relinquish their hold on me – my spirit shouts and I would love to squeeze the face of my good, good Father in thanksgiving. In those healing moments, my spirit shouts “Thank You! Thank You! Thank You!”, followed by “I love You! I love You! I love You!” And mean it too, with all I have.

But what does loving God with all we are look like when suffering squeezes out all our peace, joy, strength, and even hope? It will look like a soul slumped at Jesus’ feet, begging for mercy and deliverance, enveloped with sorrow, yet full of faith. Faith that is bold enough to proclaim —

Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him… (Job 13:15

Keeping God’s commandment is the whole duty of man (see Ecc. 12:13) and the first and greatest commandment is to love Him above all things.

…”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment.” (Mat. 22:37)

Sometimes, this proves to be challenging, hard for those who are struggling against bitterness and cynicism. We can go through the motions, but nothing is hidden from God. He knows our hearts more than we can ever attempt to. He who has made our heart, shall He not know?

The Lord looks down from heaven;
    he sees all the children of man;
14 from where he sits enthroned he looks out
    on all the inhabitants of the earth,
15 he who fashions the hearts of them all
    and observes all their deeds. (Ps. 33:13-15 ESV)

Love for God is more than a surge of our fickle emotions, more than a high or a thrill. It is a decision, a sacred commitment. A covenant. Love is a verb. To obey God humbly and willingly is to love Him. The Lord Jesus said,

“If you love Me, keep My commandments. (John 14:15)

Sometimes, we find it hard to love Him fervently because we can’t seem to feel His love for us. But we know from His Word that He loves us, yes, even when it doesn’t look that way sometimes. So, we work it out, as we do in all our important earthly relationships. We pray. We worship. I have found out, as many others have before me, that meeting the Lord Jesus Christ in worship is the surest way to feel His love.

With my weak diaphragm and problems with breathing, I can only sing one or two praise songs, if at all. But during those moments as I humbly present myself to Him, I am enveloped by His light and love and my worship becomes a sacred dance. Our dance. His Spirit and mine. And I know then that I am deeply, completely, unfailingly, eternally, loved.

This year, I am poised to continue to run the race that is set before me, forgetting the 13 years that I had not received my healing. The 13 long years that I had suffered, that I had been left behind, that I had struggled against deep longings and emotions that were unprofitable. Love keeps no record of wrongs. Or record of unanswered prayers.

Forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead (part of Phil. 3:13) —

— with a renewed commitment to love God above all things. Above my healing and dreams and longings.

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Just the Lord Jesus

Toward the end of the Jesus Finest Generation Choir singing on a Sunday worship service, as I watched via live webcast, the camera man focused on the backdrop of the riser which is the big, bold name of Jesus painted in red, and at that moment as my attention was drawn to it, everything faded to the background. I only saw His name, like a powerful presence, an invitation to look, to remember, to feel, to connect. In those few moments as the camera focused on that name, my spirit was awakened, my heart unfurled to give and receive love. There was only my Savior and me. With my ailing body’s physical difficulties and discomforts, I could only utter silently with all the pent-up longing — “I love You, my Jesus!” over and over. The tears couldn’t even find their way out, blocked by uncomfortable breathing. But the simple expression of my love was enough to assuage the deep need to worship. I knew that the Lord knew it was all I could give at that moment.

Jesusname

All day long (for our Sunday worship service is 10-5) as I watched our church’s live webcast, I was battered by my illness as usual, that many times, I needed to turn off the volume to get some rest. I only heard snippets of testimonies and the other choirs that I felt like I wasn’t really into the worship service. The hardships my illness brought drew much of my attention away and as I watched choir members and congregants being filled so powerfully with the Holy Spirit that they shook and trembled and wept and spoke tongues, I could only stare helplessly. I know the indescribable pleasure of entering into the glorious presence of the Lord. (I just wish I could do that more often, unhindered by physical limitations). But on that Sunday afternoon, the Lord beckoned me through the powerful pull of the sight of His name, to partake in His love and joy everyone in the congregation was feasting on. To be able to utter “I love You, my Lord Jesus!” with all that’s in me and feel His touch on my spirit were enough to offset the suffering. My heartfelt worship and Jesus’ unfailing love redeemed the day.

Just a day before, as fears, anxieties, and heaviness added to the oppression of my weak and suffering body, I pondered on the purity and simplicity of the Lord Jesus Christ. I sighed deeply as some sad news and messages reached me, each one making the burden heavier. I felt like a turtle that can’t shake off the weight from off its back and just leave it behind.

Life in the Lord is not complicated, I thought. Why do I always complicate things with endless worrying, analyzing, and mental wrestling?  In the Lord Jesus Christ, life is not supposed to be so complicated. Or is it?

In the end, I concluded that life in Him is both easy and hard.

It is not easy in that the Lord gave us clear commandments to obey and that we must walk the narrow road. It becomes hard when we try to straddle the Kingdom and the world and when we want to maintain a dual citizenship: of the world and of heaven; to want to be a citizen of heaven and at the same time be known in the world, however that may appear, whatever motives are behind it. It becomes complicated when the cares of this world and the desires for other things choke the Word, and it becomes unfruitful (see Mark 4:19). Consequently, we become unfruitful in love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – the expected fruit of the Holy Spirit as He dwells in us.

No wonder there are times that we operate on less than love (and we all know how that looks). Joy is hard to find like a rare commodity. And peace? It becomes as fleeting as the glorious dawn and as elusive as the mist that vanishes with the morning. We build our lives on sinking sand, and often, we don’t even realize it.

There are so many instances in our daily lives that we don’t do as the Lord commands us to. For one, He tells us not to worry, but we do it without much effort and prodding. In His parable, He tells us to become fertile ground for the Word so we will become fruitful and lack nothing. But at times, we grow slack in nurturing the Word in our hearts as we mind other things, things that don’t impact eternity, like maybe the pursuit of worldly success or pleasures or just plain busyness. He tells us to store up treasures in heaven: working for that which has eternal weight in His everlasting kingdom. But it happens sometimes that our plans and goals are not aligned with His will. He tells us to not only hear His sayings but do them. REALLY. DO. THEM. In that way, we are building our lives upon a solid rock – Jesus – and whatever trials and tests that may fall upon them, however hard they are pounded — they will remain strong and standing still.

I believe that life in the Lord is not complicated if we only have one mind, one heart, one desire, and one direction. Just a level, straight path toward our Redeemer and His kingdom: eyes on Him, spirit connected to Him, desires aligned with His desires, and His perfect will our compass. Consider the paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 3:18 from The Message:

Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.

I think of the workers in the vineyard of the Lord, especially those in our Church’s outreaches in the far provinces whose lives are not highlighted through social media. Unknown to the world, almost invisible, except to those who hear and see their fiery preaching and testimonies, agonizing prayers, and laying of hands. They surrendered their lives to the Lord, turning their backs on worldly pursuits and pleasures, and just labor for their Lord and His Kingdom, day in and day out as our beloved Pastor Wilde Almeda has diligently taught and exemplified. Just as the Lord Jesus Christ had only one purpose in heart and mind, that was to do the will of His Father, so these workers follow His lead without complaints or desires for other things. Their lives are uncomplicated, filled with peace and spiritual power.

Life in the Lord is easy in that He promises to give us rest from our labors and burdens (the yoke of the world) and find rest for our souls. He says that His yoke is easy and His burden light. He gives us commandments to keep, in that way, His joy may remain in [us], and that [our] joy may be full (John 15:11). He says that in Him we may have peace. In the world [we] will have tribulation (John 16:33).

In the world we will have tribulation. This couldn’t be more true! But in Him is:

rest

yoke is easy and burden is light

joy

peace

These are the things we find in a life in Him. So, remove the veil (all appearance of worldliness) that obliterates that lighted path between us and the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a place higher than the ground we’re treading on, a holy place which is far removed from the world’s superfluity, a place where the Lord Jesus stands, beckons, and waits. For He raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:6). We find that place when we assume our positions in true worship.

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The Principle of True Freedom

In the latter part of Luke 9, the Lord Jesus Christ and His disciples entered a village of the Samaritans, but they did not receive Him because He was set to journey to Jerusalem. Because of this, His disciples, James an John said, “’Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?’ But He turned and rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.'” (Luke 9:54-55)

When I read this recently, I knew it wasn’t only for James and John. I felt myself being sharply rebuked, too. Indeed, we do not know what manner of spirit we are of sometimes. Just because Jesus and His disciples weren’t received in a certain village, it was enough reason for the two disciples to want to command fire from heaven and consume them. That is rather extreme, don’t you think so? I got to thinking – sometimes in life, we get so offended that our initial (could be unconscious) reaction is an ill will (wish or desire) against the offender. When we are hurt, we want to hurt back. Sometimes, deep inside our hearts, we want to take revenge against those who have deeply hurt us. We know the Lord’s teachings but we can’t seem to find peace because of the anger that seems to overpower us.

While meditating on the Lord’s rebuke to James and John, it dawned on me that, in truth, all of Jesus’ teachings point toward our true liberation. This was an awesome epiphany. The most common, yet I believe the most powerful, things that can take us captive are anger and fear. When we’re consumed with anger we can’t get ourselves to forgive. The same dark imprisonment is offered by crippling fear.

When we finally realize Jesus’ teachings for what they truly are, it’s amazing how they work for our true freedom. Sometimes we feel burdened by His commandments, thinking that they are outrageously hard to follow and carry out. But, oh — when we see what the Holy Spirit has wanted us to see all along, they are what we really need to experience a kind of life-giving, peace-keeping, joy-multiplying FREEDOM!

When the Bible says, do not take revenge, God is freeing us from the misery anger brings! Look at what Apostle Paul says:

Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Rom. 12:19)

God is commanding us not to avenge ourselves for He will do it for us!

When the Lord commands us to “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you”, He isn’t doing it to favor our enemies (or those who have hurt us or treated us badly). He is commanding us to do it for our own good! Always for our own good. You see, if we satisfy our desires upon our enemies to the full – we hate, we curse, we wish ill will – the negative emotions become our own poison! It’s like cancer that poisons our cells or a wound that festers. So, when the Lord commands us to love our enemies (forgive them, pray for them, bless them , do good to them), He is actually giving us a way to be free! To live in peace and joy!

Sometimes, we insist our own way. We want to stay in anger, self-pity, ill will, hurts, wanting to believe that we are giving our emotions release, and that, the Lord’s commandments are just too much to swallow, let alone do. But true release of all that imprisons us is His Word, His commandments! In the Lord Jesus Christ we find true freedom. He is the One who lays before us the primordial principle of becoming truly free.

Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed. (John 8:36)

Amen and Amen!

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Loving the Hard-to-Love {Lessons from the Mount Part 1}

I love that the Lord Jesus Christ has given us the perfect law of liberty. Unlike the Old Testament which teaches “eye for an eye”, Jesus’ teachings are anchored on love. That said, they are in no way easy to learn or do, either. In fact, His teachings are astoundingly difficult to follow. That is, without the power of the Holy Spirit in us. This is the way to victory that the Lord has paved for us: the law of love together with the Holy Spirit. And yet, there will still be struggles.

The Lord says to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us, and pray for those who spitefully use us and persecute us (Mat. 5:44). I presume a Christ-follower should not have enemies, that is, enemies of his or her own doing. But whether we like it or not, the world makes us its enemies. The righteous will be persecuted. When we walk in direct contrast with the world, the world becomes our enemy. It wouldn’t want to receive our reproof.

Imagine loving someone whom you had shown compassion to then turned back and hurt you with her words, lifted up her heart against you, and scorned your good intentions. Imagine loving someone (that means love in every sense of the word) who wounded you and made you cry. If you’ve ever been in that place, you know how impossibly hard this thing the Lord asks of us. I’ve been in that place. And while the wound was still raw and the tears had not yet dried, this commandment pressed hard on me.

Remember Ecclesiastes 12:18? It says, “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” I fear God so I needed to obey His commandments. Before I can even attempt to love my “enemy”, there was a need to forgive. Forgive even without an apology or an admission of fault from the other person. That, in itself, was hard. But these are things we are commanded to do.

So, many times a day, I prayed for that person who hurt me deeply. I prayed that the Lord would bless her (ouch!) and be merciful to her and that she would be truly happy. The more my heart resisted (for it was the natural order of things – ugh!), the more I prayed and the more tears poured. Tears, not for the other person, but for me, that the Lord would be merciful to me, accept my prayers, and change my heart. For while I prayed to forgive and bless over and over, my heart wasn’t following suit. Anyone who had experienced that?

But I pressed on until one day, the Lord fixed everything. I realized then that we need only to obey and the Lord will do the rest. He changed my heart and the other person’s heart until peace and mutual love were restored.

In the Old Testament, the law tells us to love our neighbor and hate our enemy (Mat. 5:43). But Jesus changed all that. If we choose to hate our enemy, we will be imprisoned by this strong negative emotion and we won’t know true peace and joy. Thank God for Jesus!

(Photo courtesy of my friend Perla Frisberg).

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