#5 A Proper Balance (shortened)

(For full version of this Bible study "lesson," click here.)

            1 John 4:15-18: “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.  God is love.  . . . There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

            The truth in this verse never really stood out to me until I took down the walls that were around my heart and let God flood my heart with His love and heal the old wounds.  When the walls were up, I was relating to Him out of fear.  I did love Him and knew in my head that He loved me – because the Bible told me so – but I didn’t live out of His love.  I lived out of fear that I would pray wrong, speak wrong, displease Him, let Him down, fail Him, etc.  I feared His wrath.  I feared being abandoned.  I feared everything because I wasn’t able to really know and rely on His love.  Not until the walls came down. 

            As the passage says, “The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”  Fear in our hearts shows that we haven’t yet fully grasped His love, that we don’t really trust it and haven’t really let it fully into our hearts.  There are still walls there somewhere, hurts that make us shrink back from God, make us do our best to take care of ourselves, or make us feel worthless, like He really couldn’t love us.  And where there are walls, there is distance. 

            As we just explored last lesson, oftentimes we relate to Him out of the faulty ways we see Him.  And in order for us to truly be able to open our hearts up to Him, we need to understand (as much as humanly possible) who He really is.  And I think that one thing we really need to have is a balanced view of His love and His Holiness/Justness (including His wrath).  An unbalanced view leads to misunderstanding. 

            God’s holiness, His justness, is what demands a payment for our sins.  But God’s love is what paid it.  God’s holiness is what makes us properly fear Him and fall down on our faces at His feet in humility.  But God’s love is what picks us up, draws us close to Him and makes us fall into His arms.

Overemphasizing His Love

            Some of us have the problem of shrinking His Holiness and focusing solely on His love.

            Churches, Christians (just read some of the blogs out there), and unbelievers are doing this a lot nowadays, teaching what people want to hear so that people don’t feel convicted or ashamed.  They say things like, “God is a God of love.  It’s all about the love.  If you are loving others and putting them first, then you are doing what God wants you to do and you are okay.” 

            While this is important, of course, my Bible says to love God first and put Him first.  Then love others.  And God is not just a God of love, but a God of holiness and justness and wrath, too.  And forgetting this can be disastrous. 

            If we overemphasize His love . . .

            . . . we will believe that He is a relaxed, permissive God who just wants us to be happy. 

            . . . we won’t properly fear Him and, consequently, we will have a casual attitude toward Him, His Word, sin, prayer, etc. 

            . . . we will be living life for ourselves, and we won’t be that concerned with obedience or seeking righteousness or holy living because we’ll be more focused on what makes us happy and fulfilled. 

            . . . we’ll think too big of ourselves, feeling like God is totally pleased with our efforts to serve Him, with all the good Christian things we are doing.  Isn’t He lucky to have us working for Him? 

            . . . we’ll feel like God is just there to do our bidding (and that He’s happy to do it).

            . . . we will feel like we can sit on the throne of our lives. 

            . . . we won’t keep in mind that God is a Supreme Being that is far above us; He will be a “code to be cracked” and prayer will be a “formula.”  And so if we can just act right and pray right then God has to give us what we want, right? 

            . . . we will live as though it’s all about us.  Isn’t that what He’s here for?  To love us, to overlook our sins and lukewarm-ness, to make us happy and give us what we want?  (For more on this, also read "God is love, but love is not a god.")    

            But we are not properly seeing ourselves compared to Him.  We are not seeing ourselves in light of His Holiness.  The “self-sufficient, it’s-all-about-me, I’m-so-special, God-needs-me, I-can-do-it-all-and-I’m doing-a-good-job” parts of our personality need to be humbled by, broken by, God’s holiness and glory.  We are too big in our own eyes and God is too small.  And we need to be brought down to the level that God sees us.  And we need to see Him for the huge, glorious, perfectly holy God that He is. 

            And sometimes to get us to the point of learning this, God needs to remove everything we rely on, outside of Him.  He may have to strip us of every sense of control that we have.  We have to get to the point where we realize that He is so, so big and we are so, so little.  We are helpless without Him.  And we need Him desperately!  Daily! 

            Our overinflated views of ourselves need to be shattered, shrunk, and broken before we can see His holiness and glory, before we can experience Him for the magnificent, capable, loving God that He is.  And the trials in our lives do that.  They throw us off of the throne and we land at His feet.  Well, in His arms, really.  And if we haven’t been brought to our knees or our faces before God - if we haven’t become keenly, distressingly aware of our sinful natures and our neediness - then we haven’t been humbled by God’s glory and holiness. 

            As I went through my humbling trials and saw just how magnificent He is and how helpless and needy I was, I became so, so tiny in comparison.  I was trembling at the foot of the mountain with the Israelites as they experienced the immensity, the power, and the mystery of God. 

            And I learned that I needed a God like this in my life.  One who was so much bigger than me and who was strong enough to handle what I couldn’t.  One who – although I tried - could not be figured out like a formula or forced into doing what I wanted Him to do.  I don’t want a God that I can shrink, a God that can be totally figured out or easily manipulated by me.  He is much bigger and more mysterious and holy than that.  And that’s good with me!  I was humbled by - broken by - His holiness!  His glory!

            [Maybe this is part of the reason why God seems so silent, hidden, and unresponsive in the hard trials and long waits - to force us to decide if we will turn our backs on Him, if we will remain half-hearted “what’s-in-it-for-me” Christians, or if we will commit to Him fully, even though He is a mysterious, confusing, and sometimes frustrating God.  And to show us that He cannot be controlled or manipulated by us. 

            And isn’t this exactly what most of us get hung up on in a crisis of faith? 

            But a god that can really be totally understood or slightly controlled by us is not really God at all.  I’m learning that He is supposed to be confusing.  Because His ways are higher than my ways.  His understanding is higher than my understanding.  And it’s okay if I’m confused.  I don’t need to have Him all figured out.  He is God and I am not.  And I need to be okay with that arrangement.  It needs to be enough for me that He knows it all, that He’s in control, that He is good, and that He loves me.  And I think that’s pretty comforting.]

Overemphasizing His justness

            But then there is the other side of the coin.  If we overemphasize His holiness/justness and haven’t really grasped the reality and immensity of His love for us . . .

            . . . we will believe that He is a harsh, demanding God.  We will be terrified of Him and desperately seek to appease Him.  Because we fear what will happen if we don’t. 

            . . . we will always think of Him as the “Old Testament God of wrath,” never able to feel His love or feel close to Him.  And the compassionate, inviting, relational Jesus of the New Testament will always feel far away and seem foreign to us. 

             . . . we will try harder, out of fear, to be the “good Christian,” to earn His love, to pray the “right” way, to have the “right” attitude all the time, to be better or more impressive.  And it will be exhausting and discouraging. 

. . . we will always be afraid of letting Him down or being a burden to Him or being abandoned by Him. 

            . . . we won’t be able to trust Him with what’s really inside of us.

            . . . we won’t be able to trust Him enough to lean on Him, to really need Him.  So we will try to live self-sufficiently.  That way, we don’t have to risk it.  (Because how could He really love me, just for me?  Warts and all?  How could Anyone really want to care about me?) 

            And all the time, we won’t be relating to Him out of love - His love for us and our love for Him.  We’ll be relating to Him out of fear, fear about what He would do to us if we failed Him.  

            When I used to read the Bible, all I would zero in on was His wrath and reasons to be afraid of Him.  Obviously, because of my own walls and fears.  But as He helped heal those, the other side of Him came alive for me, too.  I started to really meet God in the pages, and not just His rules and restrictions.  And I began to see such mercy and love. 

            Now, I don’t just notice how He wiped out a city; I see how in His mercy and love He reached down to save one righteous man and his family before He unleashed His wrath.  I see how when He fought on behalf of His people, He did so completely, oftentimes losing none of His people while totally obliterating the enemy.  And He would relent from destroying a whole city because of one righteous person. 

            “Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares.  If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.”  (Jeremiah 5:1)  God cares enough about us as individuals to notice one righteous person out of so many people, and to act out of His love for one righteous person, instead of out of His justness for a whole city full of unrighteous people. 

            Because of my overemphasis on His wrath, I had always missed out on what it means to believe that “God is love.”  God loves us because that’s who He is.  He doesn’t love us because of what we do for Him or because of how well we do it or because of who we are or because we deserve it.  He loves us because He is love.  He loves us because we are His.  It’s not about us - about our attempts to earn it or to pull His love out of Him.  It’s about Him - about accepting the fact that He loves us unconditionally already, because of who He is. 

            Our attempts to earn His love, forgiveness, grace, mercy, or blessings will not work.  (That is “religion.”)  And the reason it won’t work is because that stuff is already freely available to us, if only we will reach out and grab it.  But as long as Satan keeps us blind to who God really is and what’s already available to us, he can keep us busy trying to earn something that we could never earn. 

            We can never earn it . . . but we can accept it.    

            I think putting us in the furnace is one of the most loving and merciful things God could do.  Because this causes us (if we are conscientious about it) to face our fears, walls, sins, doubts, pride, expectations, and misconceptions.  And as we do that, we begin to open our hearts a little more to the Holy Spirit, to allow in God’s truth and healing and love, and to see ourselves for who we really are and Him for who He really is.  (That is, unless we choose to run from the work of the Holy Spirit.  Which I think many people do.) 

            I wonder if the difficult circumstances of life and the inner struggles we go through are God’s way of asking us this one question . . . “What do you really think about Me and about yourself?” 

            He made us knowing that we would sin, and He loved us enough to find a way to remove our sins from His sight.  Out of enormous love for us (in spite of our sins and because of them), Jesus came here to take the punishment for us so that we would not be eternally separated from our heavenly Father.  God loved us so much that He made a way for us to have a genuine relationship with Him. 

            And this is the theme of the whole Bible.  This is the heart of the matter!  God’s love made a way!  God loves us, not based on what we deserve, but because of who He is.  He is love.  And His love is a gift.  An unearnable gift, available to all of us.  He loves us just because we are His.  Unconditionally!  And, I don’t know, but I wonder if the greatest act of humility is this: believing and accepting that He loves us! 

A Balanced View

            I think one of Satan’s greatest tools for tripping up non-Christians and Christians alike is to get us to focus on His wrath or His love too much. 

            And if I had to explain in one sentence how to live out a balanced view of His Love and His Holiness, I would say this: 

            It’s knowing that we don’t deserve His love, forgiveness, grace, mercy, or blessings, but it’s humbly grabbing ahold of them anyway as the free gifts they are and then living out our thankfulness and love throughout the rest of our lives, seeking to honor and glorify Him above all because of all that He has done for us. 

            We have to begin seeing Him for who He is if we are ever going to learn to live in His love and to have a healthy fear of Him.  And we have to begin seeing ourselves the way He does, as sinners that He loves anyway and that He wants to love, forgive, and spend eternity with. 

            If we don’t have a healthy fear of Him then we aren’t really loving Him for who He is; we are loving Him for who we want Him to be.  But if we don’t have a healthy view of His love then we will be afraid of Him and will miss out on the relationship He wants to have with us. 

            Being afraid of Him is not the same thing as fearing Him.  Totally different results.  One leads to never really enjoying the love that He already has for us, never enjoying His presence and blessings and getting to know Him.  But the other involves a healthy respect for Him – being in awe of Him, silenced by His majesty.  And this leads us to fall down at His feet in trust and say, “You are God and I am not.”  It leads us to seek Him more, to put His plans over ours, to want to know Him better, and to put our life in His hands. 

            We have to understand His love as well as His justness.  They have to go to together in order to have the kind of relationship with Him that we were made for. 

            Here are some practical ideas for getting a better balance, for getting in touch with His love and for gaining a proper fear of Him, a respectful awareness of His majesty (there's more in the full version):

            1.  Ask God to go back into your past with you, to explore old wounds, and to heal the times that broke your heart and spirit.

            2.  Explore how you really feel about yourself, why you feel this way, and what in your past caused you to see yourself this way.  (We did this last lesson.)  And ask God to help you see yourself honestly, the way He does.  (This may include studying the Bible to find out how God sees mankind, in general.)

            5.  Ask God to search your heart for anything that is blocking His love, truth, or healing.  Ask if there is any pride and self-centeredness that has taken root in your heart.  Any place in your life where you are sitting on His throne.  And take the time to listen to His answer.  (And be prepared for it to hurt.)

            6.  Start being honest with yourself and with Him in prayer.  Be honest about your shortcomings, your neediness, and about your sins, doubts, fears, thoughts, and feelings (even the ones relating to Him), no matter how “displeasing” they may sound.  You cannot have a genuine relationship with Him if you are not genuine.  And you cannot let His love into your heart fully if you will not fully open up your heart to Him. 
            (If you don’t know where to start with this, try writing a letter to God, expressing all the things you never could say to Him, and then pray it out loud to Him and ask Him to help you see things the way He sees them.  Or write down all of your fears and doubts about Him, pray them over to Him, and ask Him to help you see the truth.)

            7.  Spend some quiet time with Him regularly, with the goal of meditating on Him and finding Him in the here-and-now.  Take daily walks alone to notice God’s creativity and blessings: the flowers, animals, clouds, rain.  Spend some time watching the birds at the bird-feeder, dwelling on how He cares for something as “insignificant” as a sparrow. 

            10.  Listen to only Christian music for a time and refuse to watch movies and shows that dishonor God.  We open ourselves up to demonic attacks and suggestions when we fill our minds with ungodly things.

            16.  Learn to quiet your heart before God, giving Him time to speak. 
            [If you want to try something specific, go to my “250 Questions to Ask God” post where I wrote questions that you can ask God and then wait on Him to answer.  While He doesn’t always answer, I did get answers to a couple of them that really, deeply affected my heart and spirit.  And I only asked several of them so far.] 

            19.  Keep a running list – a journal – of all the blessings that you receive or notice every day, whether it’s the first tomato you pick off the vine, the first snowfall of the year, the wonderful visit you had with a friend, the answer to a prayer, or the way God used pain from your past to grow you spiritually.  There are far too many things to discourage us and make us feel like God doesn’t care or isn’t listening.  We forget so easily, and we need to be deliberate about writing down the blessings and gifts. 

            All of these are suggestions to help you begin to open yourself up to God’s love and to help you see God for the great, big, wonderful Father that He is.

Bible Verse and Questions:

1 John 4:15-18: “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.  God is love.  . . . There is no fear in love.  But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

4.  What do you think I mean by this:
            Churches, Christians (just read some of the blogs out there), and unbelievers are doing this a lot nowadays, teaching what people want to hear so that people don’t feel convicted or ashamed.  They say things like, ‘God is a God of love.  It’s all about the love.  If you are loving others and putting them first, then you are doing what God wants you to do and you are okay.’”
            What kinds of things do we try to excuse under the “God is love and it’s all about the love” reasoning?  Where does this reasoning go wrong?  And how could we respond to it? 

5.  What is “holiness”?  And how does it relate to God’s justness?

6.  If we overemphasize His love and underemphasize His justness, what are some other ways we might live, things we might do, or ways we might treat God and others?  How about if we overemphasize His justness and underemphasize His love? 

7.  How does an unbalanced view of His love and holiness/justness hurt us and our faith, hurt our relationship with Him and with others, and hurt our witness to others? 

9.  Do you have a tendency to overemphasize one or the other?  When and why did this unbalance happen?  How has this affected you, your life, and your faith?

12.  Why is it important to have a just God?  Should we fear His justness?  How should it make us live? 

14.  But if we don’t have a healthy view of His love then we will be afraid of Him.  Being afraid of Him is not the same thing as fearing Him.  Totally different results.” 
            Discuss this idea.  What is the difference between a healthy fear of God and an unhealthy fear of God?  How do they affect our lives?

15.  What does fear in general make us do and how does it make us live?  Can we talk ourselves out of fear?  If not, how can we get past it?

20.  How do we try to earn His love?  Why do we have such a hard time accepting it as a gift?  How about for you personally?

21.  What other things might prevent us from letting our walls down and letting His love in? 

22.  What are some of the consequences of rejecting God’s love or keeping it from fully entering our hearts?

27.  What would our lives look like if we lived in proper fear of His justness but also fully embraced and lived in His love for us?

29.  I love storms.  Always have.  And part of it is because I feel God’s power and “wildness” through them.  He reminds me that He can’t be tamed or smooshed up into my little boxes or tucked in a back corner somewhere.  And this is why I suggested standing outside in the rain (if there’s no lightning!) or the snow.  What kinds of things make you more aware of God’s magnificence and glory?  His justness?  Any time in particular when your eyes were opened in a fresh awe of Him?

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