I was driving down a familiar road yesterday when I saw this warning sign. I had a choice to keep going and see if I could find a way through, or change my plans, turn around and go back to the start of this road. I stopped to consider my options. A couple a big trucks with high clearance passed me and plowed through on the left shoulder of the road.
I turned back.
I’ve been praying about a personal problem that keeps recurring in my life (weight gain and loss and gain and loss and gain… if you really must know). I’m tired of it, (way beyond frustrated, as a matter of fact) but I haven’t seen any solution but to buckle down and try harder and go down the same dieting [self-imposed starvation] road yet again. As I drove back these thoughts came to mind.
“And how’s that working for ya? Working harder, I mean. Re-doubling your efforts?”
Well, it hasn’t worked in the long run yet. In fact every time I put in maximum effort, within a year or two it’s worse and I get more discouraged.
“And how long has this pattern been going on?”
“Maybe it’s time to re-think. Maybe the problem is not the problem. Maybe the problem is only here to reveal the real problem. Maybe it’s time to quit plowing through and go back to the beginning.”
We can choose, determine, will, discipline ourselves, make an effort, decide, toil… and as soon as another crisis requires focused willpower, we realize that character quality is a limited quantity in us. We can’t try any harder.
For many years I was taught, “Love is something that you do,” and “Love is a choice.” I suppose that applies to doing right by myself as much as doing right by others and doing right by God. But is that really love? Or is that a burden?
In the story of the Prodigal Son, when the younger brother spent his inheritance and returned, humbled, to his father to ask for a job as servant, the elder brother was thrown into a crisis. When his father accepted his brother back without punishment (or a five-year disciplinary waiting period in which he proved he was willing to submit and work harder at earning trust and paying back what he owed) the elder brother was forced to question the basis of his relationship with his Father. He was crushed and angry. He realized his years of faithful service, his choice to put duty ahead of pleasure, his sense of entitlement based on job performance and “doin’ it right the first time” brought him no more love and reward than his wayward brother received. The crisis revealed his own loveless heart and fragile relationship with both his father and brother.
There are times when the feelings aren’t there, when maintaining a relationship (even with oneself) is a matter of choosing to do things consistent with the way a loving person would act. A relationship based on willpower is a rocky one though. When a crisis demands a re-direction of energy the truth comes out. Marriage counselors often ask the question, “What was it that attracted you to your mate in the first place?” Sometimes we forget, and we need to go back and remember the nights when we talked on the phone for hours because we didn’t want to be the first to hang up. Sometimes we need to remember those feelings when no one else mattered, when we thought of nothing else but what would please our loved one and the giddy joy it gave us when they smiled, or when their knock on our door thrilled our hearts.
The people in the church at Ephesus looked like they had a marvelous relationship with God. They did everything required of them, and more. They worked hard, they maintained high moral standards, they weeded out false influences, they patiently endured, they were loyal and unwavering in their application of will-power. But it wasn’t good enough. Their heart just wasn’t in it anymore. They had somehow lost their passionate emotion-engaging love for Christ.
Through the prophet Isaiah God warned a people who He said praised Him with their lips, but whose hearts were far from Him, that the days of doing the right things for the wrong reasons would soon be over. He was blocking that path. He sent the same message through the angel who spoke to John about the church at Ephesus:
Write down My words, and send them to the messenger of the church in Ephesus. “These are the words of the One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks and moves among the golden lampstands: “I know your deeds, your tireless labor, and your patient endurance. I know you do not tolerate those who do evil. Furthermore, you have diligently tested those who claim to be emissaries, and you have found that they are not true witnesses. You have correctly found them to be false. I know you are patiently enduring and holding firm on behalf of My name. You have not become faint.
“However, I have this against you: you have abandoned your first love. Do you remember what it was like before you fell? It’s time to rethink and change your ways; go back to how you first acted. However, if you do not return, I will come quickly and personally remove your lampstand from its place… ” (Revelation 2 The Voice)
For a group that would pass many people’s criteria on what a healthy church looks like this is a pretty harsh word. I think removing the lampstand meant removing the light that they didn’t want hidden under a basket. It was the light that attracted people. Loss of the lampstand meant loss of influence.
It’s hard for those who have worked hard to spread the gospel, guard against heresy, and maintain standards to see those who have lived carelessly welcomed, accepted, honoured and given gifts beyond anything they have ever known. (I suppose it’s like the way nothing makes me madder or more resentful than the way people who have never struggled with weight issues, or spent years dieting, offer weight-loss advice as they freely enjoy a sandwich with bread on both sides.) I do believe we will soon see an influx of “fringe people” returning to experience the gracious forgiveness and generosity of the Father. It will be a time of crisis that reveals many church-type people’s hearts though. Older brothers (and sisters) need to hear the message now: Everything in the Father’s house is already yours. It is not reserved for some day in the distant future after you go to heaven and receive your inheritance. God sees and appreciates your hard work. The right words and actions are there, but the heart has long been cold. The heart is what really matters. He cares enough to post a brightly coloured message that continuing to go down this road is not going to work.
Find your first love.