Seeing the Love of Christ
Paul prays two great prayers in the book of Ephesians; both are “seeing prayers.” Ephesus was a very hard place to be a Christian, but the apostle did not ask God to take away persecutions or sufferings. Instead, he asked the Lord to help His people comprehend the greatness of Who Jesus is and what He has done. Paul understood God’s blessings always began with seeing something, not doing something.
One of Paul’s great seeing prayers is in Ephesians 3. He asked the Lord to open the church’s eyes, so they might behold the width, length, depth and height of the Love of Christ and thus be filled with all the fulness of God. The apostle’s request implies something. Though the church at Ephesus was immersed in God’s love, they needed help to see it. We are no different. When times are hard, we might assume God does not love us at all. Yet, hardship does not contradict or lesson the Lord’s passion for us. In fact, when we are lowest, we are in the perfect place to survey the heights of God’s lovingkindness.
One reason we often fail to comprehend Christ’s love is that we tend to measure it through finite things. How would you answer this question? If God loved me, He would…. How would you fill in the blank? You might joke and say, “If God loved me, He would make me rich!” We instinctively realize this is not the best answer, but perhaps we would say, “If God loved me, He would give me the good things I desire,” or maybe, “If God loved me, He would take the bad things out of my life.” We all have at least one thorn in the flesh we believe can’t possibly be of God, and we all have dreams we suppose are from a loving God. Yet, is the presence of good things and the absence of bad things the measure of God’s kindness?
In this article we will look a little deeper to understand God’s love. We will not focus not on finite things but the infinite God. Such a perspective compels us to take a different view of the things we suffer, our times of lacking, and of the worst circumstances of our lives. They are not places and times where God’s love is absent, but rather they are vantage points from which we can behold the width, length, depth, and height of the Love of Christ. Yet, it is only in turning our heart from the finite to the infinite that we see.
The Bible compares our walk with God to our growth as humans. We begin as babes and end as those fully grown or mature in the Lord. Babies are cute and loveable, but their world revolves around themselves and what they want. We don’t fault infants for being this way, because they are just starting their journey, and the human journey begins with self.
A baby can’t remain a baby. There comes a time in a child’s life when it is time to grow up. We measure human growth in many ways such as physical size and intellectual ability. However, self-sacrifice is a gauge of maturity we often overlook. When our lives are over, people will remember this characteristic more than any. Our family and friends will not recollect us for how we made ourselves happy but how we made them happy. Self-sacrifice is forever. When we have made the trek from self-centeredness to willing servant, we have come to a place of maturity.
Take this human journey and multiply it by infinity, and we have begun to understand our walk with the Lord. If we want to behold God’s love, we have merely to ask. Yet, our bold petition is the beginning of a pilgrimage, and surprisingly, it is a journey of loss. Just as self must become less if we are to prosper in human relationships, far more so with God.
“If God loved me, He would give me the good things I want and take away the bad things I don’t want.” We might assume God does this very thing for those whom He loves. However, the Bible says otherwise. If we look at the lives of God’s people, we might conclude the opposite was true. Many of God’s servants went through times when the Lord seemed to work against them. He stripped away all the good and piled on the bad.
For example, God revealed to Joseph in dreams he would be a great ruler and rule over his brothers. The young man’s dreams came true, but not before God gave him the opposite of the promise. Joseph’s brothers in their jealousy sold him into slavery and his captors carried him away to Egypt. There he prospered even as a slave, but his master’s vengeful wife accused him wrongly. Incensed, the young man’s lord sent him to prison. While wasting away in what undoubtedly was a cruel place, do you think Joseph ever asked, “Where is the faithful God?”
Moses spent the first 40 years of his life in the luxury and privilege of Pharaoh’s court. The next forty years he lived in exile herding sheep for his father-in-law Jethro. He became a nobody living in the middle of nowhere. If you knew Moses when he was young and saw how God delivered him and blessed him, you would presume he was highly favored. Yet, if you met him as an aging sheep herder with a speech impediment, you might think God had forgotten him.
Samuel, the prophet of Israel, came to David’s house, chose him among all his brothers and anointed him king. Later, David killed Goliath and became a hero in Israel. He married the king’s daughter and became the best friend of the king’s son. David’s rise to the top was meteoric, but so was his fall from favor. Saul, in his madness and jealousy, tried to kill God’s servant. David lived many years in exile and at one point even stayed in a cave. A cave is about as far from a king’s palace as you can get.
In the New Testament we meet Paul, God’s great apostle. No one today would deny God’s love for Paul, but if you were a casual observer in that day, you might disagree. You could conclude God hated Paul. Consider all the things he suffered.
In 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of his thorn in the flesh, something God gave him. Some people debate what this malady was, but I think the above passage explains it. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was trouble. It followed him everywhere he went. Someone was always trying to kill him, and sometimes it seemed nature itself was against him. Three times he was shipwrecked. He was traveling for God, but there were no traveling mercies! God kept him on the edge at all times. Three times the apostle asked God for a life he could handle. God said, “No!” How can this be love?
Perhaps you can relate to these men of God. Maybe you have found yourself in a barren place or a place of suffering and you wonder why God has taken you there. In such times we should pray to see what our natural mind can’t comprehend. God doesn’t take us into tribulation just to get us out of our troubles. Whenever He shakes finite things, it is always to give us the infinite. He makes a table for us in the wilderness, and there He meets us face to face.
When I came to be the pastor of Thorncrown Chapel, I held in my heart the stories of people who had great faith and saw God move in extraordinary ways. I believed I would be one of those rare individuals whom God uses mightily. At first, everything went as planned. Eureka Springs quickly became a premier destination for churches and tour groups. Regularly, visitors waiting to get into Thorncrown lined the entire trail that led from the parking lot to the chapel, and it wasn’t uncommon to have fifty or more buses daily. We held services from the time we opened the chapel doors until we closed them. On Sundays, our first service started at 7:30 am and was followed by two more services at 9 and 11 am. And all three were always full, even the early one. Other pastors envied what I had, and people always told me what a wonderful job I was doing. It seemed I was well on my way to being great in the kingdom of God.
A religious person is someone who is good a pursuing God, and I was among the best. I would spend hours, sometimes even days in prayer. I was a diligent theologian. People knew me as a book snob. I would carry around books that were better measured by the pound than the page. I was also good at repenting and trying to be humble. God is opposed to the proud, and I didn’t want to be on His bad side. I loved ministry. Even before I came to the chapel, I always took the ministries no one else wanted. I spent two years in jail ministry, and I worked with the poor and disadvantaged. I spent my younger years chasing God, and I loved the pursuit.
One day I was in my secret place of prayer, diligently praying for God’s favor. The Lord is always present, but sometimes His presence is especially evident. This was such a day. God showed up, and He didn’t want to talk about the Sunday services. In my heart, I heard Him speak. “I am going to deal with your self-righteousness!” I did not understand what He meant, but I sensed that things were about to change.
Shortly after that, Eureka Springs’ popularity among church and tour groups fell, and it fell fast. The days of fifty buses a day and three full Sunday services ended. Within two years, the number of tour groups visiting Thorncrown Chapel dropped by almost 80 percent, and our Sunday services suffered likewise. We had to lay off employees as our donations dwindled, and all our plans for expansion ceased. One Sunday, I walked in the chapel, ready to preach, and my heart sank when I saw only one person had showed up for church. People gauge a minister’s success by the size of his or her congregation. When someone learns I am a pastor, they almost always ask how big my membership is. But what they really want to know is how important I am, and I began to loathe the question I once loved. Somehow, on the way to becoming “a somebody” in the ministry, I became “a nobody,” and I could not understand why.
Church attendance was not the only thing I lost. Around that time, my health faded. It started one night with what I thought was a stomach bug. I comforted myself with the hope that it would all be over by morning. The next day my nausea continued and the day after that. I concluded it was time to go to my doctor. He assured me it was just gastritis, and it would pass, but it didn’t. The days became weeks, and I found no relief. It seemed to get worse at night, so I wasn’t sleeping either. I lost weight at breakneck speed. My friends told me I looked awful, and I became afraid to look in the mirror. It wasn’t my face staring back anymore.
One of my low points came one evening. I had not slept for about three days, and I couldn't take it anymore, so I drove to our local emergency room to beg for help. The doctor on call threw me out of the building! He implied I was just looking for drugs. Looking back, I can’t blame him. I probably looked like an addict. The shame I felt overshadowed my upset stomach. I walked to my car and wept.
Finally, I got an appointment with a gastroenterologist. He took the time to call me before he saw me. After I explained what was going on, he said, “This is not all in your head. Something is wrong, and we will find out what it is.” He became a good friend, one of the kindest doctors I have ever known. He diagnosed almost immediately what was wrong because he had suffered the same thing just a few years earlier. It was a rare gallbladder condition where the gallbladder spasms uncontrollably. There are no gallstones, so it is hard to diagnose. A few days later a surgeon removed my gallbladder, and I thought my ordeal was over, but it had just begun.
My stomach was no longer bothering me, and I could finally eat and sleep. My next nemesis became my colon. I developed colitis, and it persisted for almost two more years. I awoke each morning wondering what my bowels would do to me that day. At times I was unable to preach or do my job.
I did all the things people of faith are supposed to do when they are sick. I prayed, rebuked the Devil, and tried to have faith. Other people also prayed for me, often laying on hands with great confidence God would heal me. However, God seemed silent. Little did I know, God was taking me to greater healing than I could imagine.
One day I did the unthinkable. I was so tired of holding onto God that I lost my grip. I went to my place of prayer, got down on my knees and told the Lord that I couldn’t believe in Him anymore. What would you think God would do to a preacher who had lost his faith? Maybe a lightning bolt from heaven? The Lord made His presence known, and it was not to condemn, but to reveal unimaginable love. He spoke gently to my heart. “Faith is not holding onto Me. It is seeing I hold on to you, even when you let go of Me.”
I had preached countless sermons on grace before that day. With my mind, I presented the idea of grace theologically and eloquently, but that day I saw it with my heart. God revealed such a vision of His love I could scarcely stand, and it did not come at the height of my pursuit but at pursuit’s end. That day I peered at the infinite. In my weakness, I was at the perfect vantage point to behold the width, length, depth and height of the Love of Christ.
If God had let me catch Him through my own deeds, I would only have a finite measure of God. God wanted me to have the infinite measure of Christ. He let my relationship with Him die that I might partake of Christ’s relationship with the Father. He knew I would never find worth in finite things. A great ministry couldn't make me whole, so the Lord shook what can be shaken. He took away my finite measures of myself and my life. He had a much greater measure to give… Himself. (1)
Has God ever asked you what you want? Sometimes Lord brings this simple question to my heart. When the Lord questions us, it is often a test. He uses our answers to reveal our hearts. I have always known the right answer to His query. If our spouse asks us what we want more than anything, we all understand how to reply. If we ask for their possessions or if we ask them to do things for us, we will be in trouble! The only response is, “I want you!” It is no different with God.
Asking God for Himself is the beginning of a journey, one that lasts a lifetime. It is a journey of loss. We most certainly will lose our own righteousness. Our relationship based on self will be replaced with a relationship based on Christ. Anything that is a replacement for the Lord, even if it is a good thing, will go through God’s holy fire. Paul said he suffered the loss of all things that he might gain Christ (Philippians 3:7-8). Yet, our finite loses only serve to bring us to the vantage point where we can behold the infinite love of Christ.
Some people ask God to bless them. This is a good prayer. If this is the only request we ever have, God will still show us kindness. Even if we are only using God, He still gives us a peek of the width, length, depth and height of the Love of Christ. Some ask God to use them. For these the view is better, for the focus is less of self and more of others. Yet, let us not forget the greatest petition of all, and that is to know the Lord and take part in who He is and what He has done. The answer to this prayer must come through finite loss, but the view at the end is infinite.
Paul prayed for the Lord to open our eyes, and when we see, we are also filled with all the fulness of God. Being filled with God, therefore, is not something we achieve but something we realize. The same goes for the love of Christ. It simply is. The lowest and hardest times in our lives are vantage points where we can see most clearly that we are one with the Lord. He is the measure of who we are, and our life is not defined by what we have but by who Christ is.
(1) I got well quickly after that, and the ministry at Thorncrown began to grow again, but I no longer measured myself by it. I now realize all those years I thought I was pursuing God; I was actually running from Him… but He pursued me! I believe suffering and weaknesses stay as long as we need them. Perhaps when we no longer need the finite, and they have led us to the infinite, their work is done.