Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
It is an honor to be asked to deliver here at my alma mater, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, the Layne Lectures on Church Health. A few months ago I received by mail my copy of “Vision,” the seminary’s news magazine. Its theme was “Equipping Leaders to Grow Healthy Churches.” It contained excellent insights from pastors I’ve known about–Nelson Price, Don Wilton, Jim Henry–and from others. What ultimately captured my fascination, though, was the seminary’s mission statement, printed on the inside of the front cover. “The mission of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is to equip leaders to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandments through the local church and its ministries.” This says it all. Let me reword it a bit, using Rick Warren’s phraseology. A great church makes a great commitment to the great commandment and the great commission. I begin by analyzing the first part of the great commandment.
Matt. 22:37-38 “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with
all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.”
It is possible for one passion to be so all-encompassing that it overwhelms every other interest in life. A holy obsession for God can monopolize a mind’s thought patterns, purify motives, and cut away mental clutter. This premise underlies our text. Jesus told us God must becomes our all-encompassing fixation.
The call to be a Christian is a call to give heart, soul, and mind to something above this world, to yield our essence to Someone greater than ourselves. No life is fulfilled until it is wholly engrossed in this relationship of ultimate value.
Christians marked with energy of spirit and inner congruence are aware of Someone holy and worthwhile driving them from within. A divine enthusiasm impels them God-ward. Caught up in Someone glorious, they are consumed, letting “every nerve tingle and throb, and every artery flow with force” (Morgan).
For believers, there is but one first right thing, one grand purpose in life–to please and pursue God. Keep this first of all. Other needs legitimately call for our attention in their place, but this one first right thing must always have priority.
A healthy church must proclaim first and foremost the fact that every human being is created for the purpose of loving God. D.L. Moody, before becoming a Christian, was one day hoeing corn in a field with an older man who began to cry. When Moody asked what was wrong, the man told the story of his life. When he was young he left home to make a fortune. His mother’s last plea to him that day was, “Son, seek first the kingdom of God,” but he paid no attention. After traveling a while, he decided to attend church. The pastor preached, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” “That is my mother’s text,” the man said, “I wonder if that man knows me.” He said to himself he would get rich first, and then think of religion. Later, in a second church, the same thing happened again. The message deeply touched and impressed him, but he was not ready to commit, wanting to wait until he made his fortune. Later, in a third church, he heard the same challenge preached again. He said he felt God call, and sensed the Spirit striving mightily with him, but fought it and chose to wait till he got rich. Moody said the man then claimed all the sermons he had heard since made no more of an impression on him than “on that stone,” and he struck it with a hoe. Years later, when Moody became a Christian, the first man he thought of was that fellow in the field. He journeyed home and asked of him, but Moody’s mother said the man had been sent to an insane asylum, because when anyone spoke to him, he immediately pointed his finger and said, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” Years later, Moody again returned home and learned the man’s mind was still gone, but he had been sent home. Moody quickly went to see him, and tried to reason with him, but the man only looked with a blank stare and said repeatedly, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” Moody said, “Reason had reeled and tottered from its throne, but the text was still there. God had sent that arrow down into his soul. Long years had rolled away and he could not draw it out.” Love God first. It is the main lesson of life, and in a healthy church is the primary impulse of pastor, staff, and church members.
At age fifty, I have lived long enough to see firsthand the bankrupt lives of many of my childhood friends who chose not to love God with their whole heart, soul, and mind. My best friend at church married outside the faith; his whole adult life has been a zero, lived entirely without reference to God. My second best friend at church committed the only triple murder in the history of my hometown. Not long ago the state of Missouri executed him. A third good friend has gone through much wealth and many wives. My sixth grade patrol duty partner later caught his wife in bed with another man and used a pistol to send the adulterer into eternity, and to send himself to prison for life. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, she was the fairest of them all”–our stalwart example of what it meant to love God, but in her late teens she chose a different path. I saw her at a twenty-year class reunion; at 38 she looked 58. I could go on and on, describing the wrecked carnage of people I have personally known who chose not to love God first in life–broken homes, shattered lives, smashed dreams, splintered resolutions.
You be the judge. I submit for your consideration that the vast majority of the misery we see every day can be traced in one way or another to the rejection of the command in our text. Friend, we cannot afford to not love God first or to not teach our people to love God first; to ignore it demands a price too high to pay.
When God is not our first love, He becomes on a functional level our antagonist rather than our protagonist; our foe, not our friend; our hinderer, not our helper. This results in disaster. Life gets out of kilter, spins out of control, everything swirling into chaos and confusion, all because we fail to love God first.
Loving God must be made the controlling drive of life, our ultimate quest, absorbing all our essence in pursuit of an honorable goal, and keeping our feet ever on the path called straight and narrow, and also known as lonely.
To love God first will require us to resist a crush of public opinion. If you decide to serve God with reckless abandon, expect it to be lonely going. When I decided as a teen to yield my life totally to God, my main opposition came from within the church. People told me not to get overly exuberant or too carried away. One couple even volunteered to sneak me to parties without my preacher-dad ever having to know about it. I thank God for a family who urged me forward, and for a wife who later came alongside me, willing to run the Godly gauntlet with me.
The cost can be excruciating, but we must tell our people to love God first, nothing held back. We have to ask ourselves repeatedly, are we merely playing games, or is God truly the most important thought that ever enters our minds? He is worthy to be loved and followed by disciples in dead earnest about Him.
Near death, Whitefield thought only of loving Christ, and prayed, “Lord Jesus, I am weary in Thy work, but not of it. If I have not yet finished my course, let me go and speak for Thee once more in the fields, seal Thy truth, and come home and die!” That night, in his last sermon, he preached, “How willingly would I live forever to preach Christ. But I die to be with him.” In hours he was in heaven.
As a young man, John Wesley began spending two hours a day in private devotions, communing with the God he loved. He wrote his mother, “Leisure and I have parted company.” A biographer later added, “And they never met again.”
A vital key to any healthy church is an overwhelming sense that everyone in that church knows they are expected to pursue intimacy with God. Our union with Jesus, being in the Lord, is the channel, the passageway that conveys to us the joy of our life with Him. The intensity of our love relationship with Christ is determined by how well our fellowship in Jesus is maintained with uninterrupted vigor.
Vibrant Christian living is not so much something I extract from Jesus, or have bestowed on me by Him, as much as it is a by-product of my life in Him. Successful Christian living entails ongoing bonding, a never ending merging of our essence into ever more intimacy with Jesus. Success requires deepening the love, maintaining an uninterrupted, vigorous fellowship with Jesus, what old-timers called practicing the presence of God.
In the routines of daily life, commune. Love God first. Let thoughts of pure passion rise to Jesus. In prayer, commune. Love God first. Christians do not believe words in and of themselves have mystical powers. Our faith is in God, not magic. George Mueller, powerful expert in prayer, repeatedly said the first thing we must do in prayer is to realize the presence of God. In prayer, words are vital, but not as important as the atmosphere, the love. We should not begin a private prayer by speaking immediately. Before talking, meditate. Love God first. Before conversing, commune. Consider the fact Jesus is near, and relish the thought.
Even after the prayer is begun, our words must continue to rise from a sensed consciousness of love reveling in God’s presence. Prayer thrives best when its primary focus is kept away from our pressing problem, the at-hand supplication, and turned instead toward the Lord. Our finest prayers contain much adoration and praise, for these terms of endearment accent His worth and reveal we understand the importance of a sensed intimate, personal relationship with God.
Without a constant sense of vital communion with God, our communications rise no higher than the ceiling. Realizing His nearness, sensing His presence, consciously loving Him is more important than anything we can say.
My own personal pilgrimage is learning how to express my love for God has been long and arduous. The church I grew up in essentially taught loving God was displayed by showing obedience to His laws. I was an adult before I was ever exposed to the possibility of experiencing true, deep emotional bonding with God. Reading Rutherford’s letters from jail, in which he described his love relationship with God in terms as passionate as a man’s love for a woman, was the first time I ever considered the possibility of “romancing” God. This emotional aspect of my relationship with God continues to be a struggle for me. Recently our church was introduced to a song titled “Breathe,” which made me extremely uncomfortable. A love song directed to God, it says, “I’m desperate for you. You are the air I breathe. You are my daily bread, Your holy presence, living in me.” My first reaction to the song was horror. This is not me, I thought, this is not where I am, I don’t want me or our church ever to sing this song again. On later reflection, though, I decided to view the song as a desire, a prayer, rather than an accomplished fact. I now try to sing the phrases as love songs to Jesus throughout the day. I am working on “romancing” God, on loving Him with my whole heart, soul, and mind. Healthy pastors and healthy churches will work hard at it, too.
We were made for God, to love Him with sheer pleasure, with nothing held back, to obey and serve Him without hesitation or reservation. Pressing life’s passions toward Him must become our main object of pursuit. Never rest the quest to reserve our best love for Him.