Looking Past My Next Loaf of Bread

Recently, I’ve been enabled to see more clearly that my relationship with Jesus Christ is woefully inauthentic on at least a few levels. Contrary to what one might expect, however, I’m grateful to God for the many ways in which He has made this admittedly-upsetting truth known to me…even though the lesson, years in the making, has actually been pretty painful.

I’ll try to explain by way of analogy.

Many, many homes are blessed with loving extended families, and a great number of these homes are further blessed with aunts, uncles, and grandparents whose sole purpose in life would seem to be popping in every so often to spoil the kids rotten with gifts, candy treats and a greatly-expanded view of what constitutes acceptable behavior from a child. We, as parents, can expect to spend a day or two after each visit “adjusting the dials” around the home again, reminding the children that “Gramma and Grampa aren’t here anymore, OK?! Now come sit at the table!”

As this ritual gets repeated again and again over the course of the months and years during which a child is growing up, an expectation quite naturally takes root. “Honey, Gramma’s here…” might well be answered with an excited, “Gramma! Gramma! Whadja bring me?!

Hopefully, this sort of blunt, raw expression of avarice tones itself down a bit before the child in question reaches high school…but even then, the expectations of impending reward may be the same, though the brash outward display of naked self-interest will hopefully have been modified some. Certainly I was no different as a child…I knew full well which birthday envelopes probably had a check tucked inside.

I realize now, of course, that I did not often stop long enough – or at all – to value the person behind the gift nearly as much as I should have. (You knew I was going to bring Jesus back into this at some point, right?) Yeah, it still bothers me a bit to think of the many kind individuals who cared enough to mail a card with money tucked inside, or shower me with some sort of gift, and very often my response was to blurt out an excited, less-than-attentive “Thank you!” and immediately run away to play with the new toy or cash the check. Even though this behavior could easily be chalked up to childish immaturity, surely the person who thought enough of me – or at least thought enough of my parents – to provide something new and exciting in my life deserved at least some of my time and attention, right?

I think this is probably more of an accurate analogy to my relationship with Christ than I really care to admit. Or at least it was…I suppose I should be encouraged to find that there are more and more times in the past few years when I have been enabled to set aside the gifts themselves, not allowing them to occupy the center of my attention, and look instead to the great love and mercy shown to me by the ultimate Giver, the One Who stands behind all great gifts and quietly beckons all of us into a real, authentic relationship with Him.

The lesson, as I said, has not been taken in without a great deal of emotional upheaval.

I am by nature a cynic, and do not entirely trust anyone’s motives when I find that they would like to (for example) engage me in conversation or otherwise get to know me better. (“Hmmmm…I wonder what this guy really wants?”) My as-yet-unsanctified suspicion is normally coupled with an assessment of how precious little I am able to bring to any relationship, sort of like the old Groucho Marx quip that we’ve all heard quoted so often: “I don’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member!” And lurking beyond all this is the very real experience that many people enter into relationships because they perceive a tangible, earthly benefit from doing so.

The true test of friendship, of course, comes when that benefit – real or perceived – dries up, and the realities of living in this fallen world begin to set in. The most obvious example, one that plays itself out ad nauseum in headlines, novels and feature films, would be that of the extremely-wealthy man who has more friends than he knows what to do with…only to find that all his “friends” desert him after he becomes destitute. Closer to home, I think we have all lived through several relationships we thought were rock-solid in their foundations, only to find that those relationships were not, after all, strong enough to endure much in the way of change or challenge.

Personally, the lessons that stand out in greatest relief have come as a few of our kids have grown into their teens and – quite understandably and naturally – begun to separate from home. Without going into a lot of detail, it’s safe to say that not every aspect of these separations has thus far been God-honoring and, without doubt, that statement holds true on both sides of the equation. As remarried parents trying to head up a blended household, my wife and I can see very clearly that we have in many cases made things harder than they needed to be.

Parents, as a rule, carry a lot of untamed desire in their hearts to know their kids authentically and maybe – just perhaps – have their kids demonstrate an interest in knowing them authentically. So whenever we encounter what I will simply categorize as The Tepid Response and/or The Calculated Manipulation, we might involuntarily find ourselves reliving (in our minds) those moments from their childhood when we were, after all, their entire world…and they didn’t know how to deal with a skinned knee, for crying out loud, much less whether or not they should apply for a credit card when they don’t even have a job yet.

As my own heart has been pressed hard by a desire to have real, authentic, truth-filled relationships with my wife, all of our kids, my extended family, friends and co-workers, I have simultaneously been enabled – somehow – to put the brakes on my own sinful tendency to evaluate whether or not someone is being sincere with me…or just fishing around to see what value, if any, I might be able to add to their Expanding Portfolio of Acquaintances.

Increasingly, whenever I encounter The Tepid Response and/or The Calculated Manipulation I realize that I, too, am guilty of engaging with Jesus in the just the same way, by looking right past Him to the gifts that He brings into my life. Rather than value Him for all He is (Col. 1:15-20), rather than respond to how much He values a relationship with me (Phil. 2:5-11), I think my own heart has been guilty far too often of instead “running to the front door to see what Uncle Jesus brought me.”

John 6:26-29 (ESV)
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

I would ask each of us to be honest for a moment about the real motivations for our involvement – or lack thereof – in our families, friendships and the local church. Our own hearts are hopelessly difficult to figure out (Jer. 17:9) and there are many, many earthly motivations to strike up a casual acquaintance with Jesus Christ, all of them “paying dividends” right here and now, while we’re still walking around in the flesh. (Heck, why wait until we’ve died to see some results from adding the Second Member of the Trinity to our portfolio of life options?)

Typically, we enter into a church community and are generally welcomed as friends, no one asks too much of us (at least initially) and we might even stumble into a business opportunity or two. As long as we play our cards close to the vest, no one needs to know that we struggle with a porn addiction or alcoholism, that we tend to neglect our kids or have very little genuine interest in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our prayer life – assuming we have a prayer life – can tragically be reduced to treating God as the Great Cosmic PiƱata, with prayer functioning as the brightly-ribboned stick we use to break into all of the goodies.
As my own heart aches for truthfulness and authenticity in the relationships that are closest to home, my growing sense is that I have largely failed to give King Jesus that same depth in my relationship with Him; I too have often looked past Him so that I can get started digging into the riches of His kingdom. When, in the normal course of life, I find myself getting “played” or manipulated by someone who claims to love me, it really hurts; after all, I want that other person to value me, not whatever it is they think I have to offer. So I really have to wonder why it took so much time and heartache to finally realize that the greatest gift, after all is said and done, really is the Giver Himself (Phil. 3:7-10). May we all begin today to look more fervently and consistently away from His blessings, but to Him, as our greatest hope and reward (Psalm 62:5-8).

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