Here is today’s leading question: how do we reorder our loves and experience what David called ‘the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living’ (Psalm 27:13)? I would like to offer general principles about what I think is the God-ordained path by which our hearts flourish in their new life – and by flourish I mean our hearts increasingly begin to resemble that heart of Jesus.
First, pray for God to do the work only God can do.
He must create a new heart in you (salvation and regeneration), and he must be the foundation of our ongoing heart health (sanctification). I hope my list last week didn’t drive you to despair. It was meant to drive you toward Jesus. Even if we have a sliding scale that showed us how close we were to the right side, it would always remind us of the need for Jesus. No matter how close we get, we will fail. This reality is not meant discourage us. Godly sorrow is intended to bring repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10).
I am reminded of the times when it is clear to me that I fail my wife or friends. I have two choices: I can retreat in frustration and depression (maybe even anger), or I can appreciate how much they must love me to continue to do life with me. So my failure, properly processed, increases my awe at their faithful love. It is often when I am most aware of my sin that I am in awe of God’s love. When I am most aware of my weakness, I marvel at His power. When I am asking others and God to forgive me, I see the cost and beauty of their love as they forgive and remain faithful.
Let your failures increase your awe of God’s love and inspire you even more to press toward the kind of heart that loves like that.
Second, repent of your disordered loves and commit your ways to Jesus.
To understand this, we need to talk about the biblical definitions of “love” and “repent”.
I talked last week about loving the world or loving God. Love, in the Bible, is not usually used in the sense that we use it in 21st century America.[i] We think of falling in and out of love, of passionate feelings, of overwhelming emotions. We use love to mean like, lust, enjoy, approve…we use it far more widely than the Bible does. The Bible is far more pointed.
We often talk about agape, phileo and eros, three Greek words that show up a lot to define different kinds of loves. Agape is the word most often used for how God loves us; it’s also used a LOT to tell us how to love God and others. It has to do with a commitment to self-sacrifice for the sake of the other. We almost always use it to talk about our relationship to God or other people, but it is used in other ways in the Bible as well.
- I John 2:15 “Do not love (agapao) the world.”
- 2 Timothy 4:10 “Demas has deserted me, because he loved (agapao) this present world…”
- Matthew 6:24 “No man can serve two masters…he will love (agapao) the one…”
- "…men loved (agapao) darkness rather than light." — John 3:19
- "For they loved (agapao) the praise of men more than the praise of God." — John 12:43
This is a usage of agape (the verb form is agapao) that is often overlooked. In this kind of context, there is a different emphasis that emerges (which is true of many Greek words).
- “Agape has to do with the mind: it is not simply an emotion which rises unbidden in our hearts; it is a principle by which we deliberately live.” – William Barclay
- “Agape is called out of one’s heart by the preciousness of the object loved. It is a love of esteem, of evaluation. It has the idea of prizing.” https://www.mcleanbible.org/sites/default/files/Multiply-Resources/Chap3/GreekWordsforLoveWS_Chapter3.pdf]
- Agapao is a "discriminating affection which involves choice and selection." (biblehub.com)
So when I talk about love in this context, I’m talking about deliberately living in a way that shows esteem or value of something or someone as a precious, beloved prize. Here are some (admittedly weak) analogies:
- I have some Michael Jordan cards that I value. I take good care of them; I protect them. I also have cards of no name journeyman and I don’t care a bit about them.
- I have a puzzle in my office – a picture of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling – that I shellacked and framed and have it sitting where I can see it every time I walk in to the office.
- I have family photo albums at home. If there is a fire, I want those first.
I deliberately live in a way that shows esteem or value of a precious, beloved prize. In terms of my lifestyle, there are things I love in this sense as well.
- I value my health, so I go to the gym regularly. I spend money for a membership. I buy clothes and accessories that help me. I study. I get advice from other lifters (#AJ).
- I value this job, so I study the Bible, I prepare, I pray, I live submitted to others for accountability, I rest, I listen to podcasts, I buy books, I ask for wisdom from others when I’m in over my head.
- I value my marriage, so I invest time, energy, and money in my marriage constantly. We spend money on dates nights, on counseling, on vacation together. We listen to sermons and podcasts. We've been to conferences. We seek counsel from others.
In all these things, I am deliberately living in a way that shows esteem or value for something I prize. And the Bible is clear: We can do this for the things of God or the world. We can deliberately make choices to value pornography over purity; wrath over gentleness; gossip over self-control; greed over generosity; hatred over love; resentment over forgiveness.
I’m sure we don’t think of these things as a something we prize, but when we choose them – or when we choose to stay in them – we deliberately live in a way that shows that we esteem or values that over something else.
You might say, “But I don’t like that I use pornography; I don’t like that I keep giving in to gossip; I don’t like that I nourish resentment.” I hear you. We do things we don’t like or that makes us dislike ourselves all the time. That’s because this isn’t about what we like (an emotional response). It’s about what we love (a purposeful choice to value one thing over another).
What we habitually do reveals who or what we consistently love. Our habits reveal our hearts.
If you are a follower of Jesus, you are not a slave to sin (Galatians 4:7; Romans 6:18). In other words, God is stronger than habitual, ongoing sins. The process of living in God-given freedom may be a long and arduous journey as you deal with influences that have formed you (and sometimes formed you deeply), but you don’t have to be stuck in repeated, habitual patterns of sin.
God did not make you a puppet; He has given you the agency to decide what you value more: the freedom that comes from serving Christ, or the continued bondage to habitual patterns of sin. And you will choose a path, and that path will show what you value. It will show what you love. Joshua told the children of Israel:
“Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”(Joshua 24:14-15)
You will choose a path for your life, and that path will show what you value. Elisabeth Elliot, whose husband was killed while on mission work (read Through Gates Of Splendor) once wrote:“When obedience to God contradicts what I think will bring me pleasure, let me ask myself if I love him.”
This isn’t a word about perfection. It can’t be. Look in the Bible: David was “after God’s heart” and he was at times a hot mess. Peter denied his faith at one point. Abraham was willing to let Abimelech add Sarah to his harem to save his skin. But they repented, and re-committed themselves to esteeming and valuing God as their precious, beloved prize. So this is not about the perfection of every moment. It’s about a direction, a trajectory, a commitment of your life in spite of times of failure.
Agape love describes a chosen commitment and focus. It’s about habits and patterns. It’s about taking up our cross, dying daily, and presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice because we believe in Jesus and we want to give our life to him as an act of honor in worship.[ii] And if we are who we love (or we become like that which we love), we are in the midst of the life-long process of being transformed into the image of Jesus.
Loving God is deliberately living in a way that shows that we esteem or value Jesus and righteousness as a precious, beloved prize. It means we orient our life around Jesus (“What did Jesus do? What would he have me do?”)
Repentance is a call to transfer our agape love to God from anything else and keep it there. It’s turning from sin, shifting our gaze, focusing on Jesus. It means we value and prize not just the person of Jesus but also the path of Jesus. In the Bible, obedience to God and love of God are very tightly connected.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you…
He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him… If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words…” (John 14:15-24, excerpted)
I don’t know how many times I went up to the altar to rededicate my life to Jesus when I was in my teens and 20’s. I think the reason I kept going back was that I never really repented. I felt sorry in an emotional moment, which is a different thing. I never turned around from following my own law and kept God’s commandments – or I did for a couple weeks, and then slipped right back into those old habits. My life was changed when I realized how closely intertwined repentance was with obedience, that love could not be separated from the orientation of the habits of my life.
We say “I’m sorry” pretty casually at times. If we really mean it, we stop doing the thing that we said we were sorry for. Or at least – imperfect people that we are – we commit our lives to turning the ship. We pray, we get counseling, we put ourselves in accountability, we study, we do the hard work of repentance. It doesn’t mean we will be perfect, but we demonstrate the reality of our repentance by our re-commitment to obedience to God. We can’t do it alone; we will stumble along the way. Be at peace. God, who is rich in mercy and full of grace, will be faithful to keep doing the things only God can do in our hearts and minds.
Third, focus on Jesus. Read the gospels. Study the person and work of Jesus. Sing about Jesus. Pray in worship of Jesus. Commit yourself to living in the path of life that Jesus has laid out for us. That must include filling yourself with truth, which is can be found not just in Scripture but in teachings, books, podcasts, counseling, and mentoring. [iii] I hope this is something you see happening at CLG consistently, but we can’t do it enough. You are going to need to “feed yourselves” too.
One thing that stands out to me: a life characterized by love of God looks very, very compelling: responsible, open, forgiving, humble, self-controlled, loving, generous, content. That’s why Jesus said his yoke of obedience is easy, and his burden of sacrifice is light (Matthew 11:30). It brings abundant goodness and life (John 10:10).
God’s desire is that we flourish as His children in His Kingdom for His glory. His path is for us; it is the ‘after care’ plan that leads us ever more deeply into the spiritual healing and transformed life that only Jesus can bring. I will close with David’s encouragement: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good (really dive in and experience it!); blessed are those who trust in him.” (Psalm 34:8)
 There’s more but these are the big three!
[i] Read a book called Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes for more examples.
[ii] Obedience is ideally meant to point us toward the goodness of the one to whom we are obedient.
- My Crossfit training pointed me toward my instructor’s wisdom.
- Following a coach’s instruction reveals a coach’s good plan. ‘Buying in’ to the coach’s system is the same as ‘buying in’ to the coach.
- Following the directions and creating a tasty dish – especially when I am skeptical about the combination of ingredients – points me toward the creative wonder of a good chef.
There is something about the process of obedience that points us to the one who gave the commands. Walking in the path of Jesus helps us to appreciate the person of Jesus. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8) carries with it the idea of experiencing God, and in the context of the Psalms it so often has to do with obedience.
[iii] I really recommend starting with Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew.