His Arms are Open
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
~ Phil. 1:9-11
Most people are strangers to us. In western, individualist culture (like here in the U.S.) we don't typically have feelings for strangers, unless they happen to be cute babies put into our arms. We are wrapped up in our own lives, and even worse, we become callous after the media bombards us with stories of murder, death, and tragedy. It's hard to feel anything for victims when the media portrays them as items of interest. And we have another challenge as a result of technology; screens isolate us from actually being there. We have endless feeds of information but no personal contact with real people. It is like a window through which we watch life, the same way we watch any television drama.
The problem can also extend to our love for Christ. I was talking with a man the other day who told me that he faithfully goes to church and reads his Bible, but doesn't have any particular feelings while doing it. He said that he'd like to feel close to God, to experience his love. I told him that it's at least in part a side-effect of the kind of culture we live in, a culture of detachment. Especially as men, who are often trained to detach emotionally by their fathers, or who have been wounded in a way that causes them to do so.
Our love for Jesus is however our starting point for a life of faith and holiness. We follow him and live out his values because we love him. When Paul writes that his prayer for the Philippians is “that your love may abound still more and more,” he means their love for Christ. They need that love to discern what is best, and to live pure and blameless lives (v. 10). That love is not just an emotion, it is accompanied by knowledge and depth of insight. The end goal of that love is the day when we stand before the Lord, pure and blameless. If we don't start with love, we are not on the path to that coming moment. Jesus makes it clear that there is a direct connection between loving him and following his teaching (John 14:23-24). Everything we want for our lives, everything we have been promised, comes from love.
What is blocking your love for Christ? We know that we love because he first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19), so the starting point of our love for him is an experience of his love in our lives. That experience must come from knowing that we are failures and receiving his grace and forgiveness. If we don't know that we need him, or refuse to go to him with our sin, we are not going to experience his love. His love is not a feeling he has, it is active and sacrificial, and changes us forever. He has saved me, in spite of all the worst things about me, and he stands with me against everything life throws at me. I love my deliverer and my fortress (Ps. 18:1).
As our starting point, we must know that we can't do this without him, that we need him. As we open our hands and allow him to take our hopes and dreams, along with our mistakes and pain, we find ourselves lifted into his arms. Like a child to a loving parent, we both offer love and experience it. God is there, always willing. His arms are open. The question is the hardness protecting our hearts, the heaviness of the things we value over him, and the pride that keeps us from admitting we need him. Perhaps it is something we don't want to yield control over. Or perhaps we have been wounded by someone and no longer know how to trust. We have to let go of what we are holding so that we can stretch our arms out, and be caught up into his.
It is so simple, and yet so hard. Some of us, many of us, settle for going through the motions. We may go to church, show up at a Bible study, live out values that we know to be right, and still not have a love for him that is beyond any other sentiment this world has to offer, including feelings for our spouse. You need that love, it is transforming. When you have it, there are no motions to force yourself through; the love is so great you cannot contain yourself. Paul's prayer, above all else, is that the Philippians might have this love. But these words are, through the inspiration of scripture, for us as well. It is my prayer for the people in my life, and it is my prayer for myself.
Lord, whatever keeps us from drawing near to you and experiencing your love, we relinquish it. Make our love for you abound still more and more, until that coming day when we stand together with you.
~ Michael Cranford has a heart for equipping others to follow Christ in today's world. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy from the University of California at Irvine, a Master of Divinity from Talbot School of Theology, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics from the University of Southern California. Visit his website at OneSteadfast.com and follow him on Twitter at @OneSteadfast.