Loving ourselves more

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31

Image by quinndombrowski@flickr and made available under this licence.

How are you feeling this morning? Have you had a good, healthy breakfast? Have you been for your morning run yet? Have you looked at yourself in the mirror and told yourself that, all things considered, you’re not doing too badly really?

Or perhaps the reverse is true. Maybe you haven’t had time to get yourself a hearty meal. Perhaps a run is the most awful thing you can think of. Maybe you’ve looked at yourself and told yourself that, all things considered, you’re a bit of a failure.

With the pace of life and pressures of every day living, it can be all too easy for us to fall into a negative spiral when it comes to our own perspective of ourselves. Yet in chapter 12 of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says that the second greatest commandment, after loving the Lord God, is to love our neighbour as ourselves. Whilst this speaks volumes about the attitude that we should adopt to those around us, it is telling that Jesus uses the love we have for ourselves as a benchmark for the love we should have for others. Jesus plainly thinks that we have good reason to love ourselves.

Many Christians struggle with the idea of loving themselves. There is a big difference between arrogant self love and ensuring that we treat ourselves with the care and consideration that we need, however. If we believe that we are created in God’s image, and that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, there is clearly a case for loving and respecting ourselves. Perhaps we need to think more positively about ourselves, therefore, and not allow ourselves to fall into self-loathing. After all, if God has a plan for our lives, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are fit and well enough to carry it out!

Let’s think today of how we can love ourselves better. Maybe that is thinking more carefully about the food and drink that we consume and making sure that we get enough exercise. Perhaps it is recognising that we are loved by God and have a specific role to play in his creation. Rather than putting ourselves down and being critical of ourselves, maybe we should rise to the challenge of loving ourselves more!

Originally presented as a Thought of the Day on the Premier Christian Radio ‘Inspirational Breakfast’ show.

Anger and reconciliation

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Matthew 5:21-26

The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets by Frederic Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets by Frederic Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve just got back to work after collecting my suit from the dry cleaners. I tried to collect it a couple of days ago but the man who has just taken over the running of our local dry cleaners has a new policy of only accepting cash for payments below £10. Since my cleaning came to £9.95 he would only take my card if I paid him an extra £1.50, which I refused to do. I stormed out and was so angry that I returned to work and started ranting at my colleagues about the preposterousness of this situation. Anger for me, as you might be able to tell, is a real challenge. I find that sometimes even trivial matters make me really angry. That’s why this particular passage of the Sermon on the Mount is so challenging to me.

Immediately prior to this section of teaching, Jesus stated that he had not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfil them. He went on to say that we should both practise and teach the commandments of the Old Testament. In this next section of scripture, he develops the Old Testament teaching even further, beginning with murder.

Confronted with the commandment ‘you shall not murder’ most people probably find their consciences clear. Murder is (thankfully) not particularly common, and few of us would have any difficulty obeying this commandment. Jesus does not view the commandments as a legalistic tick list, though, but as deeper guidance for life. If you have ever found yourself getting angry with another person, then you are subject to the same judgement that a murderer faces. In the spirit of verse 20 (‘for I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven’), Jesus has far higher expectations than adhering merely to the letter of the law; he expects the law to shape our character and to develop our righteousness.

Jesus continues by showing the importance he places on eradicating anger from our lives. He says that if someone is worshipping and remembers that they have a broken relationship with someone else, then they are to immediately stop what they’re doing and go and ‘be reconciled to them’. Reconciliation is viewed by Jesus as being even more important than worshipping God. And this makes sense when you think about it. How can you truly worship God when inwardly you are seething with anger at another person? Reconciliation takes precedence even over worship since if we are angry with a neighbour, our sinful behaviour simply serves to build another wall between us and Jesus Christ. Worship in this context is not so much genuine worship but merely going through the motions.

Jesus offers a further example concerning the importance of right relationships with our neighbours. If we find ourselves being taken to court by an ‘adversary’, perhaps over money we owe them, we should endeavour to solve the problem before reaching court. We should aim to find a peaceful out of court settlement to our difficulty. If we do not, then we may find that the judge punishes us to the fullest extent, perhaps throwing us in prison. We’ll still end up paying every penny of the debt that we owe, but we’ll also find ourselves also serving time in jail. Clinging to a belief that we are right and our neighbour therefore is wrong is sinful, since it is based on our own sense of self-righteousness. Not only is this harmful to our relationship with God, it also serves as a very poor witness to those around us.

In this passage Jesus offers some practical examples of how we are to live lives marked with righteousness. We must ensure that we do not simply follow the letter of the law laid down in the Bible, but ensure that the law percolates into our hearts, our minds and our souls, and shapes our actions. In particular, Jesus speaks here of the importance of maintaining good relationships with our neighbours to prevent small issues spiralling out of control. In addition, Jesus warns that we must ensure that we do not allow anger with another person to cripple us and to darken our souls. We must make reconciliation with those with whom we have damaged relationships an absolute priority. Only then can we ensure that we are living lives marked with righteousness.

Is there anyone that you can think of with whom you need to be reconciled today? Why not make this a key priority. If you can’t think of a particular person, why not pray that the Holy Spirit will direct your relationships with others and help you to avoid anger in the weeks ahead.

I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets

17 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-21

Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Law and Grace by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A few years ago I spent some time on a mission in Belarus, which Condaleezza Rice, whilst US Secretary of State, described as “truly still the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.” This was a truly life changing trip for me for many reasons, but particularly as a result of getting to know a young student named Macsim. Whilst speaking to Max, as we knew him, about the Gospel, it quickly became apparent that he knew as much as any of us about Jesus and about the teachings of the Bible. For him, though, the Bible was pure ‘head knowledge’ – he knew a great deal about it, but that knowledge had not changed his life. We spent a great deal of time telling Max that Christianity was not just about knowing stuff, but about allowing that knowledge to transform our hearts and minds and to shape our whole lives. I think, by the end of our time in Belarus, Max was beginning to understand this, and whilst he did not make a personal commitment of faith whilst we were with him, I am sure that we had given him a great deal to think about.

The passage that we’re looking at today speaks to me a great deal about the difference between ‘head knowledge’ and true, transformational faith in Christ. This is framed through teaching on the Law and the Prophets. Jesus was quick to challenge the role of the ‘law’ and the ‘prophets’, that is, the Old Testament. Clearly some people had suggested that Jesus believed that he had come to sweep away all the old scriptures, and was going to build a new set of guidance for living in a Godly way. Jesus stepped in to tell his audience that this was most certainly not the case. He couldn’t be any clearer in his statement at the beginning of this passage, “‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets’.” Indeed, in the coming verses, Jesus can be seen to be teaching a strict adherence to the rules set out in the New Testament, making it clear that obedience needs to be wholehearted and not simply a legalistic attempt to keep to the letter of the law. Jesus expected his followers to have a living faith and not just follow a behavioural checklist.

Jesus does not just say that he has not come to abolish the Law; he says that he has come to fulfil it. The Law set out what was necessary for humanity to establish and maintain a relationship with God. A key element of this was the establishment of a sacrificial system by which God’s people could make offerings to gain forgiveness from their sins. This was an imperfect system, which is evident from the fact that sacrifices had to be made over and over again. When Christ went to the cross, however, he paid the price for all of humanity’s sins, in a once-for-all offering that covered the wrongdoing of all people, across all time. The Law still applies, but in Christ’s sacrifice of himself, the punishment has been served. We are still required to strive for holiness, but when we inevitably fail, our sin is already forgiven since Christ was the fulfilment of the law.

Jesus is also the fulfilment of the Prophets. The Old Testament contains hundreds of prophecies – word from God sent to teach people about who he was, how people should live, and what they needed to do to build a relationship with him. Many hundreds of these prophecies also, of course, foretold the coming of a messiah who would save God’s people. The Jewish people had waited for hundreds of years for the arrival of this messiah. In Jesus, all of the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled. Here was the messiah who would save God’s people from death. And here was the person who embodied both perfect adherence to the Law and perfection in relationship with God, since he was not only wholly human but also wholly God.

In confirming that he has come to fulfil, and not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, Jesus also makes it clear that we, as his followers, are expected to both practice and teach the commands set out within them. Jesus tells his followers, “‘unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven’.” This must have seemed hugely shocking for those listening at the time. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were known for their knowledge of Biblical law and for their efforts to follow it. The issue was, though, that for them adherence to the law was something that they made a great show of, but which they did largely to show how great they were to others. Their righteousness was public and demonstrated by their actions, but it was not deep righteousness at the level of their hearts. Following Christ is not just simply following a check list of rules, but allowing the spirit of the laws to transform our hearts and our minds as well as our actions. We need to go beyond mere ‘head knowledge’ – knowing what the rules are, and aim for transformed hearts and minds.

These five verses are quite complex and within them lurks a great deal about the nature and purpose of Jesus. Much has been written on this short chunk of scripture, but for me, today, the take home message is how we respond to the commands found in the Law and the Prophets. Do we practise and teach these commands? Have they taken deep hold of us and impacted our hearts and minds as well as shaping our actions? Do we constantly strive to live in a righteous fashion? As we begin this new week and this new month, do take time to reflect on these questions and pray that the Holy Spirit might work within us to ensure that our righteousness ‘surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law’.

You are the light of the world

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16

Umpqua River Lighthouse by Anita Ritenour @Flickr and released under this licence.

Umpqua River Lighthouse by Anita Ritenour @Flickr and released under this licence.

I have a little place in the country that I enjoy staying in during summer weekends and my holidays. It is on the shore of a river estuary and is stunningly beautiful but rather isolated. At night, it is very dark with no street lights and few other lights. Occasionally, on very dark nights when there is little or no moon showing, we see the sweep of a lighthouse across the river. This always amazes me; the nearest lighthouse to where we live is 34 miles up the coast. It shows just how powerful the lamp in the lighthouse is as well as how dark the night is!

In the verses in today’s Daily Reflection, Jesus talks about his followers being the “light of the world.” Jesus understands that the world is an inherently dark place, desperately in need of illumination. This illumination it needs comes his followers; they have a vital role to fulfil in breaking light to the world. They are to shine out in the darkness of the world, bringing love and hope into a depressing world.

Christians must ensure that their light shines a brightly as possible. Indeed, Jesus says that ” a town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” Christians, if they live as Christ did, and if they strive to live according to the standards laid out in the beatitudes, will be visible to all; it will be impossible for them to blend into the darkness, since their lights will shine so brightly. Their way of living, their standards, will be so radically different to those of the people around them that their distinctiveness will be evident.

Why is it so important for Christians to shine brightly as ‘the light of the world’? Jesus explains that by doing so, others will ‘see [their] good deeds and glorify [their] Father in heaven’. In other words, shining as lights in the darkness of the world will bring people to faith. This makes sense since it is Christ’s light that shines through us when we follow his commands. Like moths, people living in the darkness will be drawn to the light, initially to the light that we cast, and then to the source of that light, Jesus Christ.

Of course, it is important that we ensure that we do not attempt to hide our light by blending in to the society in which we live; we must maintain the brightness of our lights at all times. If we do not ‘shine before others’ not only are we failing Jesus by not taking seriously our responsibility as the light of the world, but we are also risking extinguishing the light within us. After all, if you hide a lamp by placing it under a bowl, the light will eventually go out.

Why not think today about how you live as the light of the world. Is your light shining brightly? Are your good deeds evident to those around you? Are you pointing all those with whom you come into contact towards the source of the light, to our saviour Jesus Christ?

 

I have also written about this verse in this article: How To Change the World.

#JustLove: The Greatest Commandment

The most important [commandment], answered Jesus, is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’.

Mark 12:29

One of my favourite films, and I know you’ll laugh at me for this, is Moulin Rouge, the story of a struggling writer and his relationship with a courtesan at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. At the heart of the film is a routine called the Elephant Love Medley, in which the writer, played by Ewan McGregor, attempts to seduce the courtesan, played by Nicole Kidman, through song. During the medley, he sings snippets of many famous love songs, thirteen in all, including Up Where We Belong, All You Need Is Love, and Your Song. Not only is the medley a spectacular audio and visual treat, it also attests both to the power of a love song in our culture, and also to the power of love itself.

The greatest commandment

Jesus talked about the power and importance of love many times during his ministry, including in chapter twelve of Mark’s gospel. In this passage he spoke of the importance of loving God, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. As we strive to live our lives as #digidisciples, modelling the Christian life to all those we encounter online, it is worth reflecting on these verses. As we consider how modern Christians might use Google+ effectively, or seek to use Facebook and Twitter to share the gospel, we need to occasionally remind ourselves why we’re bothering.

Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and this can be applied to our digital neighbours just as much as our physical neighbours. This, though, is only the second commandment. The command to love our neighbours flows from the first.

We are called first to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength. This should be our number one priority.

Why love God?

Why, though? Why should we love God?

John, in his first letter, gives us a very good reason. He says, ‘we love because [God] first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). Our love for God is a response to his love for us.

Of course, he doesn’t force us to love him. He loves all the people he has created, but he gives us the freedom either to love him in return or turn our backs on him. Jesus himself made this clear when he stated, ‘I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:44-45). He loves and blesses all people, those who seek to follow him, the righteous; and those who don’t, the unrighteous.

As a Christian I believe that there are plenty of reasons for loving God. There is one in particular that stands out, however. John mentions this in his letter, saying, ‘this is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (1 John 4:9-10).

Without Jesus we are condemned to death. Every day, we do things that disappoint God, and fail to do the things that he expects of us.

Through Jesus we have life

Through Jesus, however, we have life. When we say sorry for all that we have done wrong, accept that he died in our place, and promise to try to live a better life, we receive eternal life. As John stated in his gospel, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).

I don’t know about you, but for me that is a very good reason to love God!

At this point you’re probably thinking, yes, I know all this. What has this got to do with living as a #digidisciple?

It has everything to do with being a #digidisciple.

This is the gospel that we seek to proclaim when we engage with others, both online and offline. This acceptance of Christ’s death and resurrection, that he died for you and for me, is what should underpin our entire lives.

If we truly believe this gospel, our love for God should be evident for all to see. It should distinguish our tweets, status updates and blog posts from the constant stream in people’’s timelines. It should also inspire us to follow the second commandment, to love our neighbours as ourselves. This is the topic I shall turn to next month.

For now though, just reflect on whether you truly love God. Do you live for your faith? Does your love for God distinguish you from the crowd?

This, after all, is the key to living as a #digidisciple.

This article was originally published by The Big Bible Project. To consolidate reflection and debate please leave any thoughts on this post on the appropriate page at BigBible.org.uk.