Extravagant Love

Mark 14:3-5 (NIV)

 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages[a] and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

Have you ever noticed that extravagant expressions of love seemed to follow Jesus? A woman anoints Him with a years’ worth of perfume. A tax collector gives half of his possessions to the poor. Crowds lay palm branches at His feet and rejoice at His entering Jerusalem. And an untold number of people give their lives to promoting only His name throughout the world.

To many, these expressions of love would appear wasteful. And they would be if they were done for anyone other than God. No human beings’ life can match the worth of such excessively gracious gifts. But when compared with the insurmountable richness of God, the tribute of one’s possessions, monies, or life can never match the worth of His person or the gift of His grace.

In his book What Jesus Demands of the World, John Piper says, “…the Son of Man  came to save people from their suicidal love affair with possessions (and every other idol) and to lead then into a kind of impossible obedience that displays the infinite worth of Jesus.” (p. 23) This is not only the goal for Jesus’ relationship with Zaccheus, it is also His goal for the relationship you and I have with Him as well. The question that we must ask is: when or how did I most recently deny temporary, worthless things for the express purpose of displaying the infinite worth of Jesus? I know that if I am honest, I cannot remember a time that I put the public display of Jesus’ worth above my own. I have sought and dreamed of making myself great, but not Jesus. I have considered how to set my children on the path of success, or how to proclaim the beauty of my wife. I have lived a life full of potential selflessness and have squandered it on selfish pursuits. My goal has been to make much of myself, not of Jesus.

Perhaps this is why the question, “How do I extravagantly love Jesus?” struck me so hard. Despite being a Christian for over 35 years I realized I have relegated the expressions of extravagant love for God to “super Christians,” such as King David, the 12 apostles, Mother Teresa, or Billy Graham. I figured I could “try” to do my best, but extravagant love was such a low priority, it was completely off my radar.In reality, “trying” was just something I told myself I would do in order to muffle the twisting screams of conviction in my heart.

But God will only allow His chosen children to sit in the belly of their acidic choices for so long before He vomits them onto the beach and reminds them of their call to follow Him. Thus, I found myself staring at the heart of the question “How do you extravagantly love Jesus?” and trying to manage the stench of my sin.

“Extravagance,” I learned, comes from the Latin extravagari. It is a compound word that combines extra (meaning “outside”) and vagari (meaning “wander”). In other words, when you are being extravagant you are literally “wandering outside” the norms. You are so FAR outside the norms, in fact, that society or convention sees you as being “unusual, unreasonable, inappropriate, abnormal, or absurd.” This begs the question, then, have I restrained myself from loving God extravagantly because I do not want to be viewed as “weird?”

Perhaps. But I think it is more than that. I think extravagant love frightens most of us because we intuit that it demands more than a piece of living, such as behavior, or money, or relationships. Extravagant love demands all of life. Like sunlight through a magnifying glass, extravagant love is focused. It is white hot. And it burns away all idolatry within the heart. It refuses to give any ground to immorality, impurity, covetousness, filthiness, crude joking, deception, disobedience, or anything else that partners in the unfruitful works of darkness. Extravagant love is not holding up placards within a crowd of thousands. It is standing alone in opposition to evil when everyone else bows down. It is exposing the deeds of darkness not only in our speech but also with our lives. It is being filled with the Spirit and making the best use of the time we have, being careful that we walk not as unwise but as wise followers of a God whose person is so compelling and alluring that others are drawn to Him because they have interacted with us. (Eph 5:1-21)

Half-hearted love cannot accomplish this goal. A heart divided between God and anything else is a heart that belongs to sentimentality, fads, or hollow imitation and will not be able to stand firm when the flaming arrows of the evil one begin to strike. A half-hearted loved cannot imitate Christ, who walked in love and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. A half-hearted love cannot say, “Not my will but thine be done” because it is always protecting other interests. Only those who love God extravagantly can live this way. Only they understand the truth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous statement, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer is not trying to be melodramatic here. He is trying to be biblical. “Freely you have received, ” Jesus said. “Freely give.” (Mt. 10:18) In other words, if you put limits on extravagant love you will find that your self-imposed boundaries prevent you from moving beyond your human capabilities so that you may see the work and the wonder of God. It is a basic truth of relationships that the degree of selfishness always diminishes the degree of love being expressed. If you do not freely give Christ your love, you cannot expect a deep intimacy with Him. Not because He is petulant or passive-aggressive, but because you have imposed limits on a relationship where there should be none.

In these moments it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we just need to focus more so that we do not damage the relationship we have with God. But this would be a poor approach to preventing a relapse into half-hearted love. Why? Because the idea of “I need to focus more” is founded on the emotion of fear and anxiety. 1st John 4:18 tells us that “perfect love casts out all fear.” Therefore, you do not need to work from a position of fear or anxiety. You need to work out of the emotion of love. Your goal should not be “don’t mess up.” Your goal should be “how do I show God love today?” How do you do this? Go back to 1st  Cor. 13:4-7 and write down the characteristics you find listed there. Next, define each characteristic in terms of an “I will” or an “I will not” statement. This will help put a practical, hands-on approach to it. For an example, see this handout: love-is

Finally, it must be pointed out that extravagant love always risks extravagant suffering. Maybe we don’t love in this way because we don’t want to be hurt. But vulnerability is always necessary for intimacy. And conflict is necessary for connection. Without conflict, we cannot explore, understand, learn, stretch, or discover. Conflict provides a challenge. It forces us to examine ourselves and our presuppositions against alternative ideas, beliefs, or realities that demand an answer. Even the most liberal of us tend to gravitate towards stasis, as evidenced by our desire to avoid change or conflict as much as possible. But the reality is that we cannot grow without it. We NEED conflict. Even the entertainment of such an idea as this forces us to wrestle with things we once thought resolved and it is this struggle that will eventually make us stronger, regardless of whether we reinforce our beliefs or adopt new philosophies. For this reason, we are warned in scripture that we Christians will be persecuted. We will not be immune from it. Christ suffered and we will too. And if you intend on extravagantly loving Christ, you must be prepared to extravagantly suffer for Him too. Sometimes this suffering will be an internal conflict and sometimes it will be an external one. And sometimes it will be both at the same time, making you feel like you are about to be ripped apart.

But when you go through these trials of your love for God, remember the words of Paul:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith,with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me,that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Eph. 6:10-20)

Look at that final sentence again. “Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” If Paul needed prayer for his extravagant love, so do we.

I will pray for you. Will you pray for me?

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EXTRA! EXTRA!

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For over a year I have been writing the blog “Living in the Tent.” Initially, I tailored my blog to express how to live a Christian life, both from a theological perspective and a relationship perspective. As a Christian marriage therapist, I felt this would be a great way to blend both of my passions into one expression.

However, as I began to review this blog last month I realized that the majority of my posts on here were more of a devotional nature and less about relationships. I still enjoy writing about how to manage one’s marriage successfully, but I have to recognize that this blog is no longer able to sustain a dual focus. Therefore, I have decided to do the only thing that anyone with a passion for writing, loving God, and helping couples can do…I’m starting a second blog!

This blog will remain intact and continue to deliver the devotional posts that you have been reading. However, my new blog will take up the mantle of providing relationship advice for couples. As anyone can tell you, a wedding is one thing but a marriage is a whole other animal. That is why I decided to create After the Aisle. If any of you are interested in my new blog and the relationship advice that I will be giving there, please click here and check it out. I hope you enjoy it!

Loving is Exalting

in_loving_memoryIn 1989, I began my sophomore year at Baylor University. My best friend, Kevin, had been hired to be a resident assistant (RA) in the dorms that year and had left our shared state of South Carolina a few weeks prior to attend RA camp and receive his training for the job. I soon followed, arriving at school a week before classes began, so that I could settle into my dorm room early and hang out with my friend.

During Kevin’s off hours, we attended movies, ate together, stayed up late talking, and began the gradual transition to playing racquetball (due to Kevin’s disdain at barely losing in tennis to me most days). The campus was relatively quiet that week, and when Sunday rolled around we stood at the back of the church’s sanctuary, hopelessly looking for a familiar face to sit with. Eventually, Kevin spotted two girls across the sanctuary that he had met at RA camp and suggested we sit with them. I agreed and we walked over. Kevin entered the row first, placing me at one end of the four of us. I later found out that this was a strategic move so that he could sit by the girl he wanted to. But it created a slight awkwardness, so that when I was introduced to the cute brunette at the opposite end, I had to lean forward to casually wave at the woman who would become my wife. Continue reading

Making Marriage Fun Again

marriage1-620x449“Marriage is work.” Have you ever heard that statement before? You probably have, and if you are like many people, your visceral reaction to that little, three-word sentence is “Ugh.” The reason? The word “work” conjures up images of hard labor, calloused hands, low pay, unappreciation, long nights at the office, deadlines, unreasonable expectations, performance reviews, lazy coworkers who shuffle their load onto your desk, and a boss who just loves to micromanage. Who wants a marriage like that?

Instead, we want a marriage where we are excited to be together. Where it may be tough, but we know we can survive the trials of life because we support and encourage each other. We plan together, solve together, laugh together, and argue together. We take dates, raise children, take vacations, bury loved ones, and discover how to help each other accomplish their dreams. We realize that yes, marriage is difficult. It is not easy to navigate situations with someone raised completely different than you. There are responsibilities, and you must take intentional effort to nurture the relationship, but for the most part, marriage is not about the tasks you do. It’s about the person you are with.

So, let me ask you: Which way do you think about your marriage? Or your partner?

Are you keeping your head down, avoiding each other, just trying to make it through the day without any huge conflicts along the way? Or are you looking up, smiling at each other, taking joy in being with the one person who is both your best friend and your true love?

If you are the former, here are some tips that may help put some fun back in your marriage:

  1. Don’t call it a date. Just do things with each other. Lots of things. Relearn to enjoy each other’s presence. For some people, the word “date” connotes pressure to do something special. That’s an old holdover from adolescence. Adults know that getting away from the kids and going to Barnes and Noble for an hour can be just as fun as tickets to Broadway.
  2. The feeling of love comes in both being loved and giving love. If you only define love as “what’s in it for me,” you will either develop the habit of constantly using others for your personal pleasure/gain, or you will continually be disappointed in your partners.
  3. There is a difference between responsibility and pressure. Responsibility is about helping out a person you have a relationship with. Pressure is about fulfilling an obligation. Or, to put it another way, it is the difference between desire and duty.
  4. Find what is funny to your spouse and reintroduce laughter into your marriage through a humorous context that they enjoy.
  5. Reintroduce flirting in your marriage. There is nothing like a little banter charged with the electricity of wit and attraction to make marriage fun again.
  6. Rebuild your friendship with your spouse. Find those areas of commonality, whether it is similar frustrations, likes/dislikes, types of entertainment, opinions, etc., and connect them like Legos through continual communication. C.S. Lewis once said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”
  7. Expect nothing in return. Marriage is not a quid pro quo relationship. You give because the other person is valuable to you, and because you want to express the depth of that value to them, not because you will receive a reward in return.
  8. Look for how your spouse likes to demonstrate love to others, then reflect that back to them.
  9. Look for ways you can assist your spouse, whether it is in physical or emotional ways. Tune in to what is going on in their world so that you can either pick up the slack or put an arm around them to get them to the finish line. Romance is in the attention to details in your spouse’s world and attending to them more than ultra-creative moments you design for each other.
  10. Finally, in case you haven’t figured it out yet: Love is a skill, not a feeling. If you are telling yourself “I don’t think I have the ability to do marriage successfully,” it’s okay. No one has that ability in their nature. We are innately selfish creatures. That is why love is the skill of selflessness practiced endlessly with (and for) another person. It is not something that you arrive at through a two-hour seminar or a sermon on Sunday morning. It is a daily practice you engage in.