This is a hardcore gospel message. There are portions of it that made me squirm as I wrote them. It will likely have that affect on many of you.
I have lived what I am talking about and have made past choices that I regret. Lawyer, that I am, I have looked for loopholes, but I haven’t found any.
Some years ago, I meditated and prayed long and hard over the commandment that Jesus says is the “greatest and first”—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt 22:36-37).
How does single minded devotion like that play out in our own sense of self and the relationships we have with others? If God insists in filling every part of our thoughts and feelings, what do we have left for others and ourselves?
His identification of the second greatest commandment – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” addressed my concerns (Matt 22:38). God initiates love in his relationship with us and it pours out into our human relationships.
Loving God leads to loving our brothers and sisters. That is simply the trustworthy way of love (1 John 4:20 – 5:1). With God, for whom all things are possible, a faithful life of devotion can be a living reality for us regardless of the pressures of living.
The questions then are how do we choose our priorities and how do our choices affect our entry into the kingdom of heaven?
With that introduction, read on.
. . .
Meals can be a wonderful time of fellowship and celebration. They can also be a time of testing and tension. Probably you have experienced both. I know I have.
There is nothing quite as intense as a meal after a church service for a congregation locked in theological dispute. Guests pick at their food, trying to maintain a patina of politeness, while wending their way through the conversational landmines of doctrinal controversy.
Luke describes such a Sabbath day when a Pharisee invited Jesus to the Sabbath meal. It was likely false hospitality meant to trap Jesus into saying or doing something that would break the law and give cause to arrest Jesus (Luke 14).
Jesus accepted the invitation without apparent concern even though people were watching him closely. It was likely an affluent crowd. A Pharisee with resources to put on a meal like this would have affluent friends.
Soon after arriving, Jesus spotted a man suffering from the swollen legs and arms that are often symptoms of cardio-vascular or kidney disease. Jesus asked the Pharisees and religious scholars present whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?
He was met with silence. He healed the man and pointed out that no one would hesitate to rescue a child or an ox that’d fallen into a well on Sabbath so why not heal a person with a life threatening illness if one has the power to do so. It’s really not attractive to argue against compassion so they said nothing.
Then Jesus observed how the guests sought the best places at the table near the host. He told a story about how if you chose a great seat, but the host didn’t want you there, you’d be embarrassed when you were asked to go to the end of the table. If, however, you chose the end of the table and were asked to come up to the middle by the host, you would be honored in front of all the other guests.
Jesus came to the point, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
No doubt the room was quiet, when Jesus kept on the same track by offering his host some advice on the social etiquette of grace. “When you give a dinner party or luncheon, don’t invite your rich friends, colleagues, or relatives because they will be able to reciprocate. Instead, invite the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind and you will be blessed, because they can’t repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous (14:12-14).
That’s when one of the guests thought he found a way to break the tension. No doubt disturbed by the Sabbath healing, and perplexed by Jesus’ commentary on dinner party seating arrangements and guest lists, he sought common ground by latching on to Jesus’ reference to the resurrection.
“Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God” (14: 15). I can see him beaming as he uttered this vacuous platitude.
Jesus perceived that his earlier point about enjoyment of parties being ruined by a desire to see and be seen was lost on the man. Now he bore down on the paradox of which he often spoke – the pursuit of success in this world can cause one to lose out completely on the party that is the kingdom of God. What wins one credit in this world means nothing for eternity and they really needed to understand that truth. So do we.
Jesus tells the parable of the Great Banquet in which a master of a great house prepares a banquet and sends out his servant to tell the invited guests that everything is ready.
One guest refuses an invitation because of the need to inspect his real estate, another refuses because he needs to inventory and orient himself to his expanded business capacity, and another refuses based on family responsibilities (Luke 14:16-20).
All of these excuses infuriated the master of the house when reported by his servant. This is well worth our reflection. What makes God angry with us?
We may be confused because these seem like legitimate excuses – prudent diligence with regards to business and personal affairs and family responsibilities. But legitimate excuses can keep us from God’s grace every bit as much as illegitimate, fake excuses can.
Legitimate reasons of work, community leadership and service to the church almost severed my relationship with God and nearly destroyed my family. I was busy with good causes and pressing needs and they became my idols.
Whatever holds our attention at the expense of our relationship with God is an idol – even the gifts God gives us. Those gifts make us helpful, of course, but God does not need our helpfulness or activity. He desires our helplessness. He will fill it with his life and strength.
This becomes readily apparent when the master sends the servant back out for the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. The servant brings back many of these folks, but tells the master there is still room. The master sends the servant back out to the street to bring in anyone he can find (Luke 14:21-23).
The master isn’t inviting the marginal and the marginalized out of pity nor because their plight gives them a preferred right of entry.
Neither does the master beg the invitees busy with their real estate, businesses, and families that he really needs what they have to offer. They’ve made their choices and he tells them that they will never taste his banquet (Luke 14:24).
What the master desires is the company of those who will accept his grace and enjoy it. It’s grace — there is no earning it, entitlement to it, or qualification for it. There is only our hunger and God’s provision.
The late Henri Nouwen noted: “Nothing conflicts with the love of Christ like service to Christ.” In commenting on this Dallas Willard writes: “What a strange thing to say! Perhaps it is an overstatement. But it is true that a well-meaning service to God has a very strong tendency to undermine the kind of vision of God that fuels greatness for God in the human scene” (The Great Omission [New York: HarperCollins e-books], p 94).
Willard goes on to describe what happens when successful service to Christ supplants ardor for Christ:
The sense of accomplishment and responsibility reorients vision away from God to what we are doing and are to do – usually to the applause and support of sympathetic people. The mission increasingly becomes the vision. It becomes what we are focused upon. The mission and ministry is what we spend our thoughts, feelings and strength upon. Goals occupy the place of the vision of God in the inward life, and we find ourselves caught up in a visionless pursuit of various goals. Grinding it out.
This is the point at which service to Christ replaces love for Christ. The inward reality of love for God, and absorption in what He is doing, is no longer the center of the life, and may even become despised, or at least disregarded. ‘No time for that’ becomes the governing attitude, no matter what we may say. The fire of God in the human soul will always look foolish to those who like its effects but do not understand where those effects come from. (p 95)
In my case, I was born and reared in a Christian family where “serving the Lord in his work,” was the hope and prayer of my parents for me. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with that, if done, as the Apostle Paul observed, through “God, who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).
But by my middle twenties, with professional school behind me, I was serving the Lord with a much-praised zeal that masked an eighteen-hour-a-day workaholic addiction. This denied me fellowship and rest with the Lord and gratitude for the gift of my family.
When God became my business instead of my life, it was a bad business and no life. His “work” became an excuse for avoiding spending time with him, instead of a reason to seek his presence, his will, and his strength.
At that point I was violating the Third Commandment, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God” (Ex 20:7) by appropriating his name as the excuse for doing what I wanted to do instead of listening for what he wanted me to do.
I was a thirty-seven year-old alleged “Christian servant,” and I was exhausted and lonely because of the success that kept me away from the banqueting table of Christ. My talents, my efforts and my determination were not enough to sustain the life I was trying to live. So when he invited me to his party it was as a cripple, lame, poor and blind, not as a success.
Until my recognition of my broken, pitiable condition, I was too full of myself and absorbed in my work, to heed his invitation. Like the Laodiceans, I labored under the delusion that “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.”
His reply to me was his reply to the Laodiceans, “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked . . . I reprove and discipline those I love. Be earnest therefore and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me” (Rev 3:17-20).
I finally answered his knock and opened the door and it means life, real life, his life, to me.
Grace means we accept his provision with gladness and without anxiety. It took me the next 25 years to learn to stay at Jesus’ table and avoid the presumptive temptation to get up to serve myself or attempt to tend to the details I fear he may not see or heed quickly enough.
The biggest temptation of all for busy and successful people is the “someday syndrome.” “Someday, I will have accomplished my goals and have the quality time to spend with the Lord.” “Someday , I will have raised my family and I will have the time to devote to the Lord.” “Someday, I will finish my work and be able to enjoy grace and the spiritual life.”
“Someday” never comes. Without an active decision in the present moment to spend time with God in prayer, study, reflection and the service he leads us too, it won’t happen.
This is a hard truth that every Christian believer has to face—powerful contributions to the advance of God’s kingdom through evangelism, healings and good deeds in the name of Christ will never substitute for a personal relationship with Jesus.
Without that relationship in which we get to know Jesus Christ and he gets to know us, warmly and intimately, he says we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. We will be judged by him as “evildoers” because we insisted on doing it our way, not his, and never took the time to build the relationship with him (Matthew 7:21-23).
In the many years since I came to know him for myself and started to grow in him, I have learned that this is a difficult message to convey to others. Pride demands that we be necessary and useful and responsible “owners” of our stuff. He calls us to be obedient “stewards” of his stuff.
If we are stewards, we must take the time to listen to what the Lord wants for us and from us and that means heeding his words to the prophet Isaiah – “In returning and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength (Isa 30:15).
Only the exhausted, the broken, and the disillusioned seem to accept the need to accept his invitation. They realize they need grace and accept it for the gift it is, instead of trying to be successful and proficient without it.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,
Please note that the content and viewpoints of Mr. Hansen are his own and are not necessarily those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. We have not edited his writing in any substantial way and have permission from him to post his content.
Kent Hansen is a Christian attorney, author and speaker. He practices corporate law and is the managing attorney of the firm of Clayson, Mann, Yaeger & Hansen in Corona, California. Kent also serves as the general counsel of Loma Linda University and Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.
Finding God’s grace revealed in the ordinary experiences of life, spiritual renewal in Christ and prayer are Kent’s passions. He has written two books, Grace at 30,000 Feet and Other Unexpected Places published by Review & Herald in 2002 and Cleansing Fire, Healing Streams: Experiencing God’s Love Through Prayer, published by Pacific Press in spring 2007. Many of his stories and essays about God’s encompassing love have been published in magazines and journals. Kent is often found on the hiking trails of the southern California mountains, following major league baseball, playing the piano or writing his weekly email devotional, “A Word of Grace for Your Monday” that is read by men and women from Alask