I have been writing The Daily Article for twenty-one years, but this is a first: I am reporting on an article in the men’s fashion magazine GQ. I have not read one of their articles before today, but this title caught my eye: “Prayers Up: How God Became the Hottest Thing in Fashion.”
The article tells us about an Instagram platform called “I NEED GOD” now offering a webstore with some interesting merchandise. For example, they are selling a sweatshirt bearing the message, “God loves me and there is nothing I can do about it.” And a shirt with a direct quote from Justin Bieber’s Instagram: “God is obsessed with you!” (Other products are far more ironic or, some might say, inappropriate.)
Here’s another story you might not expect: a church in San Antonio, Texas, recently held a mass wedding. This is not a cult—it’s actually one of the largest churches in the city. Their pastor and staff became concerned about couples who were unable to marry during the pandemic. So they offered to reimburse couples for their marriage licenses ($81 in their county) and gave them $500 in cash to go toward a honeymoon.
Their commitment had a condition, however: the couples had to go through premarital counseling with the church. Fifty-two couples completed counseling and were married in a joint service last month.
Pledging allegiance to the Pride flag
This week we’re discussing ways to fight fear with faith. Each day’s news reinforces the need for such faith.
For example, a California teacher has been removed from her classroom after instructing her students to say the Pledge of Allegiance, not to an American flag, but to a Progress Pride flag.
A dermatology professor at Harvard Medical School reports a spike of patients seeking cosmetic interventions. The reason: they saw their faces on conference calls all day during the pandemic and now want to make improvements to their appearance, a phenomenon being called “Zoom dysphoria.”
In days like these, believers need to use every means at our disposal to offer our culture the life-changing good news of God’s love in Christ. The apparel we discussed earlier is correct theologically: because God is love (1 John 4:8), he does indeed love you, and there’s nothing you can do to change his character or the fact that he is “obsessed” with you.
However, there’s another side to the story.
"The sine qua non of spiritual fruitfulness"
Jesus told his followers, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1). According to renowned Bible scholar D. A. Carson, our Lord employed a symbol found throughout the Old Testament describing Israel as a vine (cf. Psalm 80:9-16; Isaiah 51:1-7; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 15:1-8).
However, Carson notes, “whenever historic Israel is referred to under this figure, it is the vine’s failure to produce good fruit that is emphasized.”
By contrast, Jesus calls himself the “true” vine, i.e., the one that produces true and good fruit. His followers are “branches” stemming from him as their source. As a result, he calls us to “abide in me, and I in you” (v. 4a).
Here’s the catch: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (v. 4b). Consequently, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5, my emphasis).
Carson asserts: “Continuous dependence on the vine, constant reliance on him, persistent spiritual imbibing of his life—this is the sine qua non of spiritual fruitfulness” (his italics; the Latin phrase means “that without which there is nothing”).
The first time I heard the gospel
So, what does it mean to “abide” in Jesus?
We could take the rest of the year to explore this vital question, but for today we’ll note that it means at least the decision to surrender every dimension of our lives to his lordship. Whatever the cost, whatever he asks, whatever it takes.
Oswald Chambers describes such total surrender as the path to joy that repays its cost and more: when we abandon ourselves to Jesus, “the Holy Spirit gives us a taste of his joy. ... the thought of self-sacrifice never crosses our minds, because sacrifice is the Holy Spirit’s ultimate expression of love.”
Here’s the problem: there is often a gap between surrender and the joy that repays its cost. A soul-numbing, faith-discouraging, temptation-amplifying gap. A gap between our fear of surrender and God’s transforming response to our faith.
I remember clearly the first time I heard the gospel. I was in the seventh grade; a friend invited me to ride his church’s bus to a Christian event in downtown Houston. The preacher seemed to be looking right at me when he challenged us to confess our sins and give our lives to God.
That night, walking home after getting off the bus, I looked up into the starry night and told God “no.” I remember being afraid that if I gave my life to him, he would make me miserable. He would probably make me a missionary to some distant land and keep me from doing the things I wanted to do.
I was afraid to surrender my life to him that night. I still feel that fear today. I am guessing you do as well.
"I believe; help my unbelief!"
However, here is how abiding in Christ works: we must pay its price before we experience its results.
When we order products online, we are usually required to pay for them before they are delivered. It works in the same way here: we must choose holiness before we want to be made holy. We must choose to abide in Jesus before we want to give up what it takes to abide in Jesus.
This is because Satan is a brilliant tempter, customizing his offerings to what our fallen human nature desires. We should not be surprised that we want what he is tempting us to do. If we wait until we don’t want to sin before we choose not to sin, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.
If alcoholics wait until they don’t want to drink before they start sobriety, most will never get sober. If we wait until we’re not afraid to surrender our lives to Jesus, most of us will never surrender our lives to Jesus.
So, a foundational key to abiding in Jesus is asking his Spirit for the strength to choose to abide in him. It is asking for the faith to have faith, echoing the prayer of the man who prayed my favorite prayer in Scripture: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
It is asking for the courage to trust Jesus before we see the first results of such trust. It is stepping into the river before God stops the flood, marching around the fortified city before God destroys its walls, choosing the lions’ den before God stops the lions’ mouths.
Are you afraid that if you give your life fully to Jesus, he’ll make you a missionary to some distant land or otherwise keep you from doing what you want to do? The fact is: If he sends you to be a missionary, this is because being a missionary is absolutely what is best for your life. If he keeps you from doing what you want to do, this is because he knows that what you want to do will harm you in ways you cannot yet see.
So, what fears are keeping you from surrendering your life fully to your Savior? Do you need to ask the Spirit to help you choose such surrender today?
Why Satan lets us "get away with" sin
Here’s a second barrier to abiding in Christ: we must surrender every dimension of our lives to experience the transforming power of our Lord.
Our culture so easily separates Sunday from Monday, the spiritual from the secular, religion from the “real world.” From the time we begin attending church or doing anything else spiritual, our fallen society begins urging us to keep such activities to ourselves. God can be your hobby, they assure us, so long as you don’t force your hobby on anyone else.
As a result, we are easily deceived into believing that we can tolerate private sin with the confidence that it will never become public. But, like the sons of Samuel who “took bribes and perverted justice” in their personal dealings, our private sins will inevitably be exposed (1 Samuel 8:3-5).
In fact, if you are “getting away with” unconfessed and unrepented sin today, it’s likely because your enemy is waiting until your sins will do even more damage when they are made public. The further you climb up the cultural ladder, the farther you will fall one day, and the more your fall will injure yourself and others.
The Bible makes following Jesus incessantly and insistently holistic: taking up our “cross daily” (Luke 9:23), being “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20), presenting our “bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). Roman crucifixion killed every part of your body, not just your arm or leg; the Jewish sacrificial system required every part of the animal, not just its hoof or tail.
Are you leaving part of your “body” off your altar, separated from your cross? That’s like telling a surgeon there’s part of the cancer in your body you don’t want her to remove. God can heal only what we allow him to touch. He can lead into his perfect will only those who will follow.
Is there a part of your life you are afraid of submitting to Jesus? Once again, you are not yet in position to experience the results of such holistic surrender to your loving Lord, so ask his Spirit for the strength and courage you need.
And know this: the more we abide in Jesus, the more fruit we will bear for his eternal glory and our greatest good.
"You are the Beloved of God"
It comes to this: if we see ourselves as children beloved by our Father, we will see the price of obedience as the privilege of love. We will position ourselves to experience all he can give to those who trust fully in him. And others will see the reality and relevance of our faith and be drawn to its Object and Source.
Henri Nouwen observed:
“The world is only evil when you become its slave. The world has a lot to offer—just as Egypt did for the children of Jacob—as long as you don’t feel bound to obey it. The great struggle facing you is not to leave the world, to reject your ambitions and aspirations, or to despise money, prestige, or success, but to claim your spiritual truth and to live in the world as someone who doesn’t belong to it.”
As a result, Nouwen continues, “All the good things our world has to offer are yours to enjoy. But you can enjoy them truly only when you can acknowledge them as affirmations of the truth that you are the Beloved of God. The truth will set you free to receive the beauty of nature and culture in gratitude, as a sign of your Belovedness. That truth will allow you to receive the gifts you receive from your society and celebrate life.
“But that truth will also allow you to let go of what distracts you, confuses you, and puts in jeopardy the life of the Spirit within you.”
Will you claim your status as God’s Beloved today?
Publication date: September 2, 2021
Photo courtesy: Zac Durant/Unsplash
For more from the Denison Forum, please visit www.denisonforum.org.
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