“But I am like a flourishing olive tree, anointed in the house of God. I trust in the unending love of God; his passion toward me is forever and ever.” -Psalm 52:8, TPT
A couple months ago, I went to Northern California for a weekend away where I could spend some time in the mountains in a place where the sun still shines in January. I am a huge nature person, and my first day there, I was driving around a town called Redding. From the highway, I saw what seemed like the most amazing tree I had ever seen. It towered over all the others, and from a distance, it was so strong, bold, and grand that when exited the highway, I drove around until I found it so I could get a good picture of it. However, when I finally saw it up close, my heart sank from what felt like complete deception and betrayal: my majestic tree, up close, had a barbed wire fence around it. The trunk was merely a metal pole painted brown with artificial branches attached all the way up. Up close, I realized it wasn’t a tree at all, but a cell phone tower in disguise, hiding its ugliness, trying to be beautiful butfailing because it wasn’t the real thing – it was only pretending to be something it was not.
As I continued to explore, an hour away, outside this city, real, actually impressive trees lined the road that led into the mountains, trees so large that my arms couldn’t even wrap wrap halfway around the trunk. They were tall and beautiful and glittered in the sun with a light dusting of snow from the night before. The smell of the evergreen forest filled the air, and the whole sensation was enough to shed a couple joyful tears over just how beautiful and real – yet surreal – those trees were, praising God through merely existing as who God created them to be. You can call me a tree-hugger for comparing our lives as followers of Christ to trees, but we have the same choice to make when it comes to serving God.
Throughout the past few weeks, we’ve been learning a lot about what it looks like to do things for God, and in order to do this well, we have to look deep into our hearts and find where what we are doing is coming from. This makes the difference in whether fasting is genuine prayer or just going hungry; whether memorizing Scripture is meditation or empty facts inside our heads, and whether serving is a living sacrifice or just an item on your weekend to-do list.
What makes the difference? Following Christ is not the sum of all the parts, everything added together of what we do for God, but letting each part of our lives be completely defined by him. That’s easier said than done. There are points in our spiritual lives where restlessness comes in…maybe God seems distant; doubts and questions fill our minds; we get stuck on comparisons. We long for fulfillment and comfort, so we run from these things and avoid them instead of working through them. Often within the church, our running is towards performance. There is a tendency to think that the aching and questioning and the sinful habits will go away if we just pray more or find somewhere to serve or spend some extra time each week in the Word. But even the spiritual things we do will ultimately fail if they are coming from the wrong place – as a “Christian to-do list” of what we think we should do as medicine for pain or as a cover for the things about ourselves we’d much rather hide. In his book Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning describes this as the “Imposter” self that is inside each of us. “Imposters are preoccupied with acceptance and approval.” The imposter self lies and tries to protect us by convincing us that if we do the right things all the time, we will be loved by God and we will be more accepted by Him. But when even spiritual performance drives us, our lives start to look like all of the phone towers disguised as a trees, tall and grand at a distance, but up close you see that it’s just a prideful, protective cover-up for everything unresolved from within. If we look deep into our hearts, it’s easy to recognize these ugly patterns, doing things for God for recognition or to feel better about ourselves, or just because we think it is the right thing to do. When striving to do all the right things is what is motivating us, every good thing we do just adds more layers that cover up what is happening on the inside, and even good things are meaningless and empty.
Following Christ is not a decision that results in a giant to-do list. It’s a transforming identity. Without every day taking in how much God loves us as individuals, it’s easy to get lost in comparisons and unrealistic expectations:
-If I call myself a Christian, I have to volunteer all of the time…
-If I were a good Christian, I would not be struggling with this sin…
-If I am a Christian, I need to make sure I read this many chapters of the Bible and pray for this long every day…
We perceive others around us in church and compare. We hear sermons and condemn ourselves for not getting it right. We do and do, and it’s empty. Then we get burnt out; we let our relationship with God fade and distance ourselves from community.
If loving others – serving, fasting, praying for the people in your life – are all things that we are called to do as followers of Christ, how do we do it in a way that we are real, authentic, evergreens – trees that are year round providing life and shade and beauty? You have to know who you are.
Following Christ is taking on a whole new lifestyle of living loved. Christ’s love compels us… but how can we be compelled if we haven’t stopped to experience God’s love, when we don’t have a concrete picture of what it means for ourselves to fully live loved? The answer is that we have to lay a foundation. When we read and study Scriptures, we are good at pulling out rules and getting hung up on what we don’t understand, and we forget to hold onto the gems of love that God has for us. God’s Word is full of His character of goodness towards us and the new identity in Him. One of the ways to learn how to live loved is to ask God when you read His word to highlight verses that talk about His character and who He has called you to be. Then start listing them and declaring them out loud.Thank God for these qualities and for how you see them showing up in your life. This is what the Psalms are: David described in great detail and bold honesty before God his life and situations he was in. Then he reflected on God’s thoughts about him and thanked Him for being God in the middle of even the most difficult situations. And if you are struggling with this, ask God to open your eyes to how He is loving you in the little ways throughout each day. Write them down so that you thank God for them and remember His goodness. Start giving to God the little things, praying all kinds of requests no matter how insignificant they seem. When you start waking up to how God is loving you in the everyday things, it’s easier to trust in God’s love in the overwhelming areas of life such as big decisions, loss, addictions, and things that are happening that don’t make any sense. Then you can embrace them and work through them instead of covering them up with performance.
Knowing that God is thinking about you all the time, that He is the one who gives you the ability to dream and desire to do His will and that He cares about the desires of your heart – as you learn to walk as a child deeply loved in every way in every moment, that is how you love others. That is how Christ’s love compels you do DO things that will make a difference. God loves you so much that He cares deeply about every aspect of your life: every pain, every dream, every hobby, every relationship, every interest. He loves every unique way He made you and wants to do something amazing for Him with it. Realizing who you are and that God has a purpose for the unique way that He made you and that He loves each part of you, and living out that love: that is what makes you a flourishing tree. Being a tree, growing and being rooted in God’s love means being real and authentic, not being afraid of our imperfections, but realizing that God wants to use even our struggles as away to show compassion to others. When you realize that you are living loved, shining as a light and and living in love becomes your default position, not something you have strive for. And not striving, just being loved and loving, that’s the most beautiful, meaningful part of following Christ.
Also, if you want to learn more about how God loves you and wants you to love Him and the world around you, consider taking one of the upcoming the SHAPE classes at Grace. This class will equip you to look at how every part of you: how God made you, your interests, your passions, and even your experiences are powerful ways to love others. Here is the link to the current class offerings!