What are the roots of a fruitful Christian life?
If someone were to ask you what’s most important in the Christian life, what would you say?
Reading the Bible? Praying? Worship? Evangelism? Church attendance? Helping people in need?
All these activities are good and important aspects of our faith, but they are the fruit of something deeper.
Down at the deepest roots of our faith is one all-important thing: the love of God.
Without healthy roots, a tree’s fruit can’t grow. Similarly, if we don’t have a firm grasp of God’s love, it’s very hard for us to live a life of love — which is, after all, what being a Christian is all about (John 15:12, 17; Phil 1:9-10, 11)!
Therefore, knowing God’s love in the depth of our hearts is the most important goal we could ever aim for in life (Eph 3:16-17, 18-19).
Soon we’ll be looking at some strategies you can use to move towards this goal, but first let’s make sure we’ve got an accurate idea of what God’s love is (and isn’t) like.
1. KNOWING GOD’S LOVE: What is God’s love not like?
If the idea of knowing God’s love deep in your heart sounds a bit airy-fairy or self-indulgent to you, consider this: How can we reflect God’s love to others if we haven’t known it deep within our own hearts first?
We can’t give away something that we don’t already have!
A heart that’s filled with God’s love remains fruitful:
- Even when people disappoint us or abandon us.
- Even when our dreams are snatched away by illness or the death of a loved one or the betrayal of a trusted friend.
- Even when we are sick, or caring for someone who’s unwell, year after year.1Our hearts may feel crushed by our losses, and there may be seasons of pruning, as we saw in Part 1 of the Fruitful Series. But the Bible says that God is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18), and Romans 8:35-39 reminds us that nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. Don’t forget that branches which have undergone the painful pruning process become even more fruitful with time.
Why? Because God’s love doesn’t ebb and flow like people’s love does. God’s love never leaves us, through death or betrayal. God never keeps us at a safe distance when we are at our worst, like our friends and family can do.
No, God’s love is different to human love. It is described as a spring of living water that always satisfies and never runs dry (John 4:13-14, 7:38, Jeremiah 17:7-8, Rev 22:17).
God’s love gets poured into our hearts, like water into an empty cup, regardless of how rotten we feel. We might even say that the emptier we feel, the more space there is in our hearts to receive God’s love!
2. KNOWING GOD’S LOVE: What is God’s love like?
We’ve just looked at how different God’s love is to human love. Now I’m going to confuse you by comparing God’s love to the love that parents (humans) have for their babies (other humans)!
The parent-baby bond is the closest earthly comparison to God’s love that I can find, so let me tell you my Baby Blues story as a way of illustrating our second big idea about God’s love.
Baby Blues story
I absolutely love babies. They’re so pudgy and cuddly and gummy and delightfully trusting. I took thousands of photos of my own babies — it was my way of treasuring the moments that I knew would fly by all too quickly.
But there were some aspects of the baby years that were not so enjoyable…
Our second baby was extremely unsettled. As a newborn she cried a lot. Nothing would soothe her. As soon as we laid her down, in the car seat or the pram or the bassinet, she would scream until her teeny face turned purple and her sweet newborn clothes (and surrounding surfaces) were covered in vomit.
At about three months of age she settled — finally we could put her on her back and she would stay calm. She still wasn’t a good sleeper, though; in fact she didn’t regularly sleep through the night until she was two-and-a-half years old. (Yep, we did hire a sleep specialist. Nope, no miracle cure, unfortunately!)
Nothing could take our love away
Living on broken sleep month after month, year after year, was truly awful for my husband and me. It was a shock to the system for us, because our first child had slept through the night consistently from six weeks of age — how lucky we’d been!
The level of affection we felt for our kids fluctuated a great deal during those grueling years. Hormones, illness and sleep deprivation can play tricks on your emotions!
But we never contemplated taking our love away from our unsettled baby and our determined toddler. Not even once. It didn’t even cross our minds as an option.
Why? Because they belonged to us! They needed us! Even though they gave us nothing in return, we felt a soul-deep, visceral, powerful connection to them.
God’s love is even stronger
That’s just a shadow of God’s kind of love! God’s love is sacrificial. It never gives up. It’s not flippant or changing; it’s constant and enduring. He loves us even though we can’t give him anything in return.
At the heart of our Christian faith is a message that’s beautifully simple, yet curiously difficult to accept: God loves us because of who he is, not because of who we are. That’s the gospel in a nutshell.
Why is this wonderfully freeing message so hard for us to accept? And by us, I mean Christians — those of us who already belong to Jesus!
As you read the two descriptions below, see if you can relate to one or both of these types of Christian.
A self-assured Christian
- For some of us, the gospel is hard to accept because we see ourselves as good people: we always try to do the right thing, and we think that our efforts should make us more deserving of God’s love.
- To accept that God loves us because of who he is, not because of who we are, is to acknowledge that our good behaviour doesn’t influence God’s love for us — he loves a virtuous person no more than he loves an immoral or nasty person. This is not how the world works; it can even seem unfair.2Two of Jesus’ parables illustrate just how unfair God’s mercy seems to a good, faithful, hardworking person: (1) the Vineyard Workers in Matt 20:1-16, and (2) the Lost Son Luke 15:11-32. In both parables, the characters who have faithfully done the right thing are outraged and disheartened when mercy is shown to someone less deserving. It’s food for thought, isn’t it? A litmus test of sorts, to help us gauge where our motivation is coming from — are we expecting that God should love us more than he loves other people? If so, we are walking the same path as the Pharisees, who struggled with a huge spiritual blind spot: pride.
A self-loathing Christian
- Others of us struggle to accept the gospel because we see ourselves as bad people: we think God could never love someone like us, considering all the ways we fail him.
- To accept that God loves us because of who he is, not because of who we are, requires us to shift our thinking. We need to remember the truth about God’s love.
During my many years as a Christian, I’ve gone through phases of being a self-assured Christian and a self-loathing Christian! Let me tell you about a time when I struggled with the latter.
3. REMEMBERING GOD’S LOVE: What can we do when God feels distant?
I remember a very dear, compassionate, faithful friend and mentor asking me this question years ago: “What’s the truth? What does God think about you?”
I wasn’t in a good state at the time. My depression wasn’t well managed and I was haunted by self-loathing.
My snot-covered, tear-streaked, blotchy-skinned face went blank as I blinked vacantly at my friend: the question truly stumped me. It felt like a cruel thing to even ask!
I eventually bleated out a reply. “What’s the truth?! The truth is that I’m an awful person! I’ve failed God!”
Holding my hand while I wept, my friend recited the start of Psalm 103, steadily and gently:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
(Psalm 103:1-2 ESV)
I couldn’t join in — I was too dejected.
Eventually, reciting verses like this became a habit. When my sense of despair would flare up like an infuriating, burning itch that just couldn’t be scratched, God’s word would come to my aid. It grounded me and soothed me.
But at that time, my feelings were so strong that they had eclipsed the truth about God’s love in my heart. My feelings were influencing my beliefs about God.
What I needed to do was find ways to switch this around, so that my beliefs could guide my feelings. It’s taken many years, but I’m slowly getting the hang of it.
Below, I’ll share three strategies that I’ve adopted to help me remember the truth when God’s love feels far away. I pray that they will benefit you, too.
Strategy 1: Preach the gospel to yourself
A number of other prominent Christian teachers recommend this practice of preaching the gospel to yourself, too. I particularly like Paul Tripp’s take on it.
No one is more influential in your life than you are. Because no one talks to you more than you do… What is it that is capturing your idle thoughts? What fear or frustration is filling your spare moments? Will you just listen to yourself, or will you start talking? No, preaching. Not letting your concerns shape you, but forming your concerns by the gospel.3https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/preach-the-gospel-to-yourself
One way that I preach the gospel to myself is through hymns. Yes! Those same songs that droned on and on with verse after verse of long words and lofty concepts, driving me close to tears of boredom in church when I was a child, are the very songs that I now cling to in my darkest moments.
There’s something unique about hymns. They’re like poetry in the way that they cleverly condense big ideas into just a few beautiful and memorable words. And they’re packed full of the gospel message! I’ve created a playlist that you can listen to for free via the Hymns album link in the Resource Library.
If you’d like to gain a clearer understanding of what it means to preach the gospel to yourself, Jerry Bridges explains it well in this short interview.
Strategy 2: Memorise Bible verses
Memorising Bible verses is a great way to preach the gospel to yourself. After all, God’s word is the “sword of the Spirit”. We need to arm ourselves with God’s truth, like Jesus did when he was tempted in the desert (Matt 4:1-11).
Each time the devil tempted him to doubt God’s goodness, Jesus responded with these words: “It is written…” Let’s follow our Lord’s example! Let’s learn to wield God’s word like a sword. Let’s learn to stand strong against any thought that threatens our hope, steals our peace, or smothers our joy in Christ (John 10:10, Eph 6:10-11, 17).
Memorising God’s word won’t take away your physical pain, but it can help you endure it. Memorising God’s word may not take away your depression, but it can bring life-giving comfort to your crushed spirit. Memorising God’s word may not take away your loneliness, but it can draw you near to your creator in an intimate and precious way.
I’ve created a playlist that you can listen to for free via the Memory Verses album link in the Resource Library, and the Fruitful #3 Resource Bundle (details below) contains some printable memory verse cards.
Strategy 3: Take captive every thought
Our thoughts don’t always line up with God’s truth, do they? In fact, managing our stray thoughts is like herding cats at times!
We so easily convince ourselves that the life we’re living is not the good life we deserve. “We want what we do not have. We have what we do not want. And we are unhappy.”4Joni Eareckson Tada, When God Weeps, p.2
When God’s love feels far away, we need to be vigilant in recognising thoughts that don’t match the truth, and proactively replace them with God’s truth.
For example, the way we think about ourselves can be quite harsh and unloving. Have you ever noticed that? Sometimes we say things about ourselves that we wouldn’t dream of saying about someone else!
- “I’m such a burden!”
- “They’d be better off without me.”
- “I’m so useless… Look at me!”
I would never say such cruel things to another person, especially to someone who is sick or disabled through no choice of their own. Yet I’ve thought all of these things about myself many times since falling ill, particularly in the first couple of years.
How it must break God’s heart when his dearly loved children torture themselves with their own thoughts!
The apostle Paul said we need to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ”. (2 Cor 10:5 NIV) Although Paul was talking about false teachers here, I believe the same principle still applies to us. Think of how often our own thoughts lead us away from Christ!
What sorts of thoughts and fears have overwhelmed your mind as you struggle through illness and/or grief? The Fruitful #3 Resource Bundle (details below) takes you step by step through some of the most pervasive lies we believe about ourselves. For each lie, there is a list of Bible verses that can help you to recalibrate your thoughts.
Nothing can separate you from God’s love!
I pray that Fruitful #3 has helped you remember who you are in Christ. You are dearly loved! Nothing in all creation can separate you from his love!
Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity…? No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that… nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Rom 8:35, 37-39
Father God, thank you for your great love. We’re so glad that your love for us doesn’t change according to how well or badly we’re performing in life. Guide us, shape us and transform us into people whose minds are in sync with the beautiful and freeing truth of the gospel. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
How can I help you grow?
Click here to download Fruitful #3 Printable Resource Bundle (presently under review – try again soon!). Let’s be proactive in directing our thoughts towards Jesus!
Go to Fruitful Series #4: How to Manage Difficult Relationships.
Lego soldier: Paul Hudson Flickr CC licence