Experiencing God’s love
I’d like to tell the story about how I experienced the astonishing love of God that I had heard so much about, but not really seen firsthand. Oh, I did have some experience with it, but it was little compared to the transformational encounter I was going to have. I probably have mentioned this here before, but even if so it’s time to focus on it. There’s a lot of church experience stuff in it, but it has a point. So here goes.
When I was first Saved I quickly found a church to call my home. It was an on-fire independent charismatic local church. There was plenty of Word and plenty of Spirit. I loved it there and began to flourish.
It was a difficult time for me because I was going through a very painful divorce. I had joint custody of two beautiful young children, I owned and ran my own business, and I was attending night school for an engineering degree. Something had to give, so I decided to jettison the night school and place the Lord first in my life.
That worked for a while, but at the same time the church was experiencing its own challenges. It was growing like a weed, and we began breaking ground for our own building. All that was exciting, but it brought along with it some great danger. Unfortunately, much of that danger was shielded from the eyes of the elders, and they ended up jumping into the trap.
Church growth through evangelism become everything. Saving souls was perhaps 80% of what was preached. We all became frenetic about witnessing to those on the outside. The upshot was that there indeed was a constant flow of new people into the church. That was great, but I began to notice a disquieting truth. For every new person coming in, someone was leaving. We had a ton of people who were falling through the cracks, and we weren’t even acknowledging the problem, let alone doing something about it.
That’s what happens when you get out of balance. We were so gung-ho on evangelism that we were neglecting character development and maturity. When things get that lopsided, it’s time to check motivations. We were doing it for the fleshly reward rather than following the spirit, and it was all nicely camouflaged as “the Lord’s work”. I even heard later that the pastor was receiving a stipend for every new member that was signed up. I was shocked.
We had four services a week at the time, and something developed in the Sunday night services that was very exciting. The elder there had gotten a vision of God’s lavish grace, and began preaching on it. When grace is preached strongholds are broken. People are set free. There is power in the Blood, and we need to tap into it. But watch out, because there is going to be – not might be, but going to be – opposition.
The senior elders thought that the grace message was getting out of balance. There wasn’t enough law, in their estimation. Finally they put their foot down and pressured the grace elder to contain his teaching. I remember the night very clearly when, rather than tempering his grace message with an appropriate amount of caution, he did a complete 180 and started preaching condemnation from the pulpit. He mocked sinners, in particular homosexuals. He was trying to make the basic point that grace is not license to sin, but instead he killed the grace message completely.
Have you ever seen a church devoid of spirit? We became one quickly. It was like we were a car tire with a puncture. The air (“pneuma” = spirit) rushed right out of us. And what begins in the spirit WILL become manifest.
A lot of feelings were being hurt by men clamping down on the Spirit of God. People began having visions of pain and difficulty ahead for the church, and these were not visions that contained the Lord’s encouragement. Rather, they were admonitory. We were in disobedience and were losing our way.
As discontent grew, people began leaving. The first few were “sent out” by the whole church, making it all look sublime. But then later ones just left in droves. People were praying about it, and also talking to each other. We felt we had to, because the elders apparently were in denial.
And then the elders began to crack down. They felt they were losing control, which they were, and that they had to do something about it. That also was true, but what they did was to start beating the sheep. Faithful members were given ultimatums to toe the line or leave. Many left, and with them the hearts of many more were grieved. The same elders who had preached laying down your life to help your brothers succeed were now slaying those brothers.
Finally I too had had enough. I brought my grievances to the pastor, and then to the board, but essentially I was told I could leave if I didn’t like the way they were running the church.
I can’t express how deeply this hurt me. I had been blessed with two parents who loved me with all their hearts. But the problem was they didn’t know HOW to love me. They did the best they could, God bless them, but were too hurt and damaged themselves to give me what I needed. And so when I joined the family of God I believed that I finally had found what I needed. Here was a family that would deal with problems in the context of both what was right and unconditional love. When this hurt came down I, and many more like me, felt totally betrayed. Many stumbled. Quite a number left the faith. A Christian bookstore was sold. Marriages were destroyed and families broken up. Two elders began using and even dealing drugs on the streets of New York City.
In hurt and anger, I stopped attending. What does one do though? I knew I couldn’t go back to the world. I was filled with such hurt I took my Bible and slammed it on the floor and told God, “if this is what you’re about, you can go on without me. I’ve had it”.
In my immaturity I had projected man’s failings onto God. The church represented God. So if the church failed, didn’t God fail? The church was God’s fruit, and “by their fruit you will know them” I reasoned. I in my utter stupidity was judging God! I hadn’t learned that even the church is imperfect, because it is made up of imperfect people, and that this is not a reflection on the God who patiently calls us to perfection.
With that, a dark period began to wash over me. I wasn’t in the world, but neither was I doing any good for the kingdom. A heavy spirit gripped my heart. Finally, several months later, I had an open night vision.
In the vision, there was a great darkness. I was dangling over the mouth of a great abyss by a single slender thread. The thread was attached to my back, so I was hanging face down toward the abyss. There wasn’t a single thing I could do to help myself. Were I to struggle, the thread would snap only that much sooner. All I could do was wait for the inevitable breaking of the thread and the plunge downward. There was nothing to be done, and I knew that I was lost.
I woke from the vision deeply shaken. There was no question but that the vision was a real depiction of my spiritual condition. And yet the vision clearly showed there wasn’t a thing I could do to change anything.
Consequently I began to get my affairs in order. I took only small jobs. I organized my finances and wrote goodbye letters for my kids to find later. And I waited. I didn’t know whether I was going to die or lose my mind, but I knew it would be one of those two, and I knew it was going to happen soon.
Days turned to a week, two weeks, and then a couple of months, and still I didn’t go. The months began to pass, and I became perplexed! I should be dead! What was going on?
Finally it dawned on me. I couldn’t keep myself, but all this time the Lord Jesus was keeping me. “when we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.” I was astonished. The One I had forsaken had not forsaken me. He never said a word. He just silently bore me up when I was at my absolute most undeserving, and He waiting for me to understand what was happening.
His gentleness, when I knew full well that I deserved punishment, broke me. All my life I had been a hard-head. My mother had even called me “testa dura”, which is the term for that in Italian. But now God had broken that curse over me. I no longer had to operate from a place of not being loved. I KNEW that Jesus loved me more than I could ever understand, that He saw through all my sin and rebellion to my deep needs, and He humbly laid himself down to meet those needs.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” -Matt 11:28-30
I’ve noticed time and again that when God wants to show us something, He allows the exact opposite into our lives, and then He shows us by contrast. As they say, never pray for patience! The Greek word for this process is krisis, which means to divide. Here God allowed the ultimate rejection to take place, to expose my neediness and my misguided reliance on man to fill that need. And then when I was at my most helpless, He made His faithfulness known to me first-hand. It came as a brilliant light on a deeply dark background.
God is always doing that sort of thing with us. He allows circumstances to bring us to the end of our natural strength, in order that His supernatural strength can be perfected in us.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. -2Cor 12:7-10
What we need is the eyes to see what He is doing. And more basically, the faith to trust even if we can’t yet see.
I hope this has encouraged you. If you are going through something deep, know that God is doing a deep work of restoration in you, one that He could not have done any other way. Remember in John 11, when Jesus learns that the friend that He loved, Lazarus, was dying, He intentionally lingered for days rather than going to him forthwith:
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. -John 11:5-6
Did you catch that? Look at that little word “so”. That’s a logical connector. Jesus lingered because He loved Lazarus and his sisters. Jesus allowed Lazarus to die because He loved them. Because He loved them, He decided to do a greater work in their lives, a work which while costly in the short term, would lift them up to a higher permanent place spiritually, so they could be closer to Him forevermore. By Jesus’ calculus, the pain and difficulty Lazarus and his sisters would have to go through in his dying could not compare to the glory they would know when he was raised from death!
When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. -John 16:21
This is our lot. If we want to get closer to God we need to get used to the trials that test our faith. We need to get to the place where when things go wrong – even horribly wrong – even in our pain we do not doubt God’s love for us, do not doubt that God still has us in the palms of His hands, will not let go, and still is guiding and perfecting us. We need to keep abiding in his love, peace and rest. That is where His wisdom lies, and that is where his power will be perfected in us.
On the other side of the test are higher pastures of pleasant intimacy with the Lord, and greater power to minister. We see this lost and dying world waxing worse and worse. It’s happening on a daily basis now, quite openly. There is such a need for willing servants to take on the disciplines of God so they can meet the world’s needs with Christ’s love and tidings of comfort and joy.
But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold. -Job 23:10
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. -1Pet 5:10