Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Jesus Intentionally Gave His Life

Warning: Please do not read this writing if you are sensitive to or may be upset by graphic descriptions of physical violence.

Please do not allow children to read this writing.

My first experience reading the details of the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross was about 25 years ago. It was during the time of the celebration of Easter in America and I happened upon a book that presented information on the subject. I remember it so clearly because I could not stop reading and pondering the reality of what I was reading.

In some very real ways I found myself relating to some of what I was reading because of the physical abuse I had experienced at the hand of my father. Nothing, of course, like I was reading, but some faint memories of my own abuse stirred in my soul and the feelings that these memories brought to the surface I think God used to help me understand His crucifixion. And maybe understand my own abuse just a little bit better. And certainly understand His love for me a little bit more!

The memories I was tapping into as I read the book on crucifixion were feelings such as shivering in my body when I was awakened in the middle of the night as a small boy, waking to the cold chill of terror as my father was raging. My knees, stomach and chin would shake uncontrollably. Feelings of stark fear when I was facing a physical beating and there was no one or no way to stop my father from beating me. The raw physical pain I still have memories of that was a part of the intense physical beating and battering I experienced at the hand of my father. The despair I felt watching my father beat one of my brothers or my sisters or my mother knowing there was nothing I could do to stop him.

Certainly I have had many questions about God and I have given a lot of thought to the subject of God, who he is and what he is like. I was plunged into all of this “God stuff” from my birth.

In the final analysis I have come back to one overwhelming realization over and over and over again. Whatever I do or do not understand and whatever I believe or do not believe about God, ultimately I have to ask myself, and answer some questions that, for me, go to the core of the issue of who God is and what he is like.

Assuming for a minute that there is the least possibility that this Jesus who is well documented in history might just possibly be the person he says he is, the very Son of God in human flesh, here are my questions:

‘Why would God allow His Son to suffer the way He did?’

‘Why would Jesus have been so willing to go through what He went through?’

‘What could possibly have been the motivation for such a voluntary act on the part of Jesus?’

I would like to describe some of what I have learned over the years regarding what Jesus experienced. There are some variations in what I have read over the years in the accounts of what Jesus experienced but for the most part all the accounts are consistent in their description of the main details. I invite you reading this to do your own study on this subject. Perhaps as you read what I am writing you will have questions similar to the ones I have mentioned above.

I also invite you to use your imagination as you read these descriptions of the crucifixion of Jesus. Imagine you are the mother of Jesus. Or imagine you are a close friend of Jesus. Or imagine yourself in the circumstances in which Jesus found himself and try to comprehend what it may have been like if you were the one experiencing what he experienced and how you may have felt and responded. Personally I have done this many times. I have tried to fathom what it would have been like if I had been the one in the place of Jesus through every moment of what occurred during these final hours of his life on earth.

The night before Jesus was crucified he went to the Garden of Gethsemane and he prayed to his father. He was aware of the suffering he was about to endure over the next several hours and he was already experiencing the weight of it all in his mind and his heart. Jesus was experiencing extreme psychological stress. In fact he was exceeding sorrowful unto death. During this time of enormous emotional strain he began to sweat blood.

Some say this can’t be so or this is an exaggeration. But in reality, though rare, the phenomenon of Hematidrosis, or bloody sweat, is well documented. Severe anxiety causes the release of chemicals that break down the capillaries in the sweat glands. As the capillaries are compromised the result is a little bleeding into the sweat glands and this mixes blood with sweat.

This Hematidrosis also caused Jesus’ skin to be very fragile so that a few hours later when Jesus was flogged by the Roman solders his skin was hyper-sensitive to pain. Further, Hematidrosis very likely produced marked weakness and shock to his body. I really cannot imagine the amount of emotional stress Jesus my Savior was experiencing while in the garden that night praying to his father.

  The next violence Jesus endured was after his arrest in the middle of the night and Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin. A soldier struck Jesus across the face for remaining silent when questioned by the high priest Caiaphas. The palace guards then blind-folded Him and mockingly taunted Him to identify them as they each passed by, spat upon Him, and struck Him in the face.

  This may not sound all that bad until you realize that the strikes to his face were numerous and savage, and they caused the face of Jesus to be marred so that he was no longer recognizable as a human being. The blows were not just mild slaps. The soldiers delivered direct violent forceful blows with their open palms and fists to the bare face of Jesus at point blank range. They also pulled out his beard!

Jesus willingly gave his face to these men and intentionally allowed them to treat him this way. We would not get the picture of what Jesus endured from most artists’ renderings of Jesus on the cross. But this is in fact what took place. No bones were broken in his face but the bruising and contusions and swelling left his face so damaged that his face no longer had the appearance of a human being when the soldiers were done beating Jesus.

Then in the early hours of the morning, after being battered and brutalized, dehydrated, and exhausted from a sleepless night, Jesus was taken before the Roman procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, who had final authority concerning the condemnation and execution of Jesus. Though Pilate could find no fault in Jesus he issued the order to have Jesus flogged and then crucified.

Roman floggings usually consisted of thirty-nine lashes but often were a lot more than thirty-nine, depending on the state of mind of the soldier applying the lashes. Jesus was prepared for the scourging by being stripped of His clothing and then his arms were tied to a post above His head.

The soldier flogged Jesus with a whip of braided leather thongs with several metal balls woven into them, all the way to the end of each thong. When the whip would strike the flesh, these balls would cause deep bruises or contusions in his skin which would break open with further blows.

My brother Nathan, my brother Jonathan, my sister Katherine, my brother Fred Jr. and I; we all experienced something similar to this when we were beaten by our father with the mattock handle. Our father would give us so many blows with the mattock handle that our skin would badly bruise and then, after a few minutes break, he would beat us some more, just as the feeling was beginning to return to the previously beaten parts of our bodies. This repeated beating caused the bruises that had begun to form from the earlier beatings, to break open causing open bleeding and eventually open sores.

Of course what we experienced, though from our perspective it was very painful and traumatic, was minimal compared to what happened to Jesus. I don’t normally think of my brutal abuse in a positive light, but in this one way, in my being able to relate to Jesus even in this small way, I realize I have been able to understand even more what he did for me. And for this understanding I really am grateful.

The leather thongs used on Jesus also contained pieces of bone and glass. The bone and glass would cut the skin severely and imbed in his skin and when the whip was pulled back in preparation for the next lash it would rip the skin on his back and legs. The heavy whip was brought down with full force again and again across Jesus’ shoulders, back, and legs.

At first the thongs cut through his skin only. Then, as the blows continued, they cut deeper into his subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles.  Finally the skin of his back was hanging in long quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh and the entire area was an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue. His back and legs were so shredded that part of his spine was exposed by the deep, deep cuts. His veins were laid bare and his very muscles, sinews and bowels were open to exposure. The flogging went all the way from his shoulders down to his back, his buttocks, and the back of his legs. It was probably more terrible than anything you could imagine.

History tells us that many people would die from this kind of beating even before they could be crucified. Jesus experienced tremendous pain and he would have gone into hypovolemic shock. This means he suffered the loss of a large amount of blood. Hypovolemic shock is a very serious medical condition. His heart was racing to try to pump blood that was not there. His blood pressure dropped causing him to approach near fainting (in fact he collapsed to the ground as he walked the Via Dolorosa). His kidneys would have stopped producing urine to maintain what volume of fluid that was still left in his body. He became very thirsty as his body craved fluids to replace the lost blood volume.

How would his mother have felt watching these soldiers torturing her innocent son?!

When it was determined by the centurion in charge that Jesus was near death, the beating was finally stopped.  By this time Jesus was already in serious to critical condition. The half-fainting Jesus was then untied and allowed to slump to the stone pavement, soaked in His own blood. But the physical abuse had scarcely begun.

The Roman soldiers saw great sport in this pathetic figure of a small town Jew claiming to be king. They put a robe around his shoulders and placed a stick in his hand for a scepter. They still needed a crown to make their travesty complete. Flexible branches covered with long thorns were plaited into the shape of a crown and this ‘crown’ was pressed into his scalp. Again there was bounteous bleeding because the scalp has so many blood vessels.

After mocking Jesus and striking Him across the face and preparing his crown of thorns, the soldiers took the stick from His hand and struck Him across the head, driving the thorns deeper into His scalp. Finally, they got tired of their sadistic sport and the robe was torn from His back. Already having adhered to the clots of blood and serum in the wounds on his back, its removal caused excruciating pain and he began to bleed again almost as profusely as when he had initially been beaten.

Jesus survived all of this brutality and was then required to go forward toward the place of his crucifixion.  The heavy cross section (the patibulum) of the cross was tied across His shoulders, and Jesus was required to proceed with his executioners in his slow journey along the Via Dolorosa to the place of the skull, the place called Golgotha.

Because he was experiencing hypovolemic shock, in spite of His efforts to continue walking, the weight of the heavy wooden beam was too much. Jesus stumbled and fell. The rough wood of the beam gouged into the lacerated skin and muscles of his shoulders. He tried to rise, but his muscles had been pushed beyond their endurance.

  A man named Simon was recruited to carry the heavy cross section (patibulum) the rest of the way to the place where Jesus was to be crucified. When they arrived at the place called Calvary Simon was ordered to place that heavy cross portion on the ground and Jesus was quickly thrown backward with His shoulders and back against the wood. Historical Roman accounts and experimental work have determined it is most likely that the nails were driven into the body of Jesus between the small bones of his wrists (radial and ulna) and not through his palms. The Romans used large iron spikes that were usually seven inches long and tapered to a sharp point. They were 3/8ths of an inch in diameter.

The Roman soldier felt for the depression at the front of Jesus’ wrist. He drove the heavy, square, seven inch wrought-iron spike through the wrist of Jesus and deep into the wood. Quickly, the Roman soldier moved to the other side and repeated the action, being careful not to pull the arms of my Savior too tightly, but to allow some flexion and movement.

The iron spikes were hammered into Jesus through the place where the median nerve runs. This is the largest nerve going out to his hand, and it was crushed by the iron spike that was pounded into his wrist. Each wrist! You know the kind of pain you feel when you bump your elbow and hit your funny bone? This is an example of another large nerve very similar to the median nerve.

So try to visualize this. Visualize taking a pair of pliers and squeezing and crushing that nerve on your elbow. Too painful to even try to think about! That gives you a vague idea of what Jesus experienced, in terms of his pain when an iron spike was hammered through each of his wrists. The pain was excruciating! In fact the word excruciating was originally formulated to describe the pain experienced during crucifixion. Look up the origin of the word excruciating on Google.

Imagine if this were happening to you!

After Jesus was nailed by his wrists to the heavy cross section it was then lifted in place at the top of the stipes (the vertical section of the cross which was already secured in the ground) with Jesus hanging from his wrists. The sign reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” was nailed into place at the top of his cross.

Jesus’ arms immediately stretched about six inches beyond their normal length from the weight of hanging by his wrists and both of his shoulders became dislocated and it is very likely that his elbow joints were also dislocated at this time. Jesus’ left foot was then pressed backward against his right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, an iron spike was driven through the arch of each foot, leaving his knees moderately flexed.

Jesus my Savior was now crucified.

As He slowly sagged down with more weight on the iron spikes in his wrists, excruciating pain shot along his fingers and up his arms to explode in his brain -- the iron spikes in his wrists were putting pressure on his median nerves. And the pain was similar in intensity radiating from the iron spike through both of his feet.

As Jesus pushed Himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He placed His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there was the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the metatarsal bones of his feet.  At this point as his arms fatigued, great waves of cramps swept over his muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps came the inability to push upward. Hanging by his arms, his pectoral muscles were paralyzed and his intercostal muscles were unable to function.

Jesus could draw air into his lungs, but he could not exhale. Jesus fought repeatedly to raise himself in order to exhale and get even one short breath back into his lungs. Spasmodically, he was able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen. In essence crucifixion involves, in part, an agonizingly slow death by asphyxiation.

The stresses on the muscles and diaphragm put his chest into the inhaled position. Basically in order to exhale he had to push up on his feet so the tension on his muscles would be eased for a moment. In doing this the iron spike would tear through his foot eventually locking up against his tarsal bones.

After managing to exhale, Jesus would then be able to relax down and take another breath in. Again he would have to push himself up to exhale, scraping his bloodied back against the coarse wood of the cross. This went on and on until he was completely exhausted. He was no longer able to push up and breathe any more.

After Jesus’ arms had come out of their sockets his chest sagged downwards, stretching out to its full extent. Try this yourself. If you strenuously stretch out your arms above your head spread as widely apart as possible, even while seated, you'll recognize the difficulty. Or with your hands spread as far apart as possible grab a bar high enough off the ground for you to hang on with your feet off the ground and hang from the bar in this hands-spread-far-apart position with all of your weight being held up by your hands. See how you feel after just five minutes. See what happens if you try to push your hang time to ten minutes!

It's easy to inhale with arms fully outstretched, but difficult to exhale again. Your body needs to work its muscles to breathe in and out, and it is used to doing so with little resistance. Once your chest is fully expanded, it is impossible to breathe in anything more than sips of air. Jesus slowly suffocated near the end of his crucifixion because he was unable to get enough oxygen and he was unable to expel the carbon dioxide building up in his body. The one who made the universe couldn’t even get a breath.

Basically Jesus my Savior was forced to alternate between the terror of the very real feeling of suffocating and the excruciating pain when he put pressure on the iron spike in his feet to push up so he could exhale and grab a quick gasp of breath.

I have experienced a faint shadow of what Jesus was going through. With lung disease I often become fatigued in my back and stomach muscles as I work exceedingly hard to get breath. Carbon dioxide gets trapped in my lungs due to the disease I have and the feeling of not being able to get my breath causes me panic at times and extreme discomfort. It often takes me tremendous energy just to breath. However, compared to what Jesus experienced I breathe easy.

Jesus experienced hours of limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, bones out of joint, intermittent partial asphyxiation and searing pain where tissue was torn from His lacerated back as He moved up and down against the rough timber.

Then another agony began -- a terrible crushing pain deep in his chest as the pericardium slowly filled with serum and began to compress his heart.  Any of you with heart disease may relate a little bit to this final torturous experience of Jesus.

All of these details of his crucifixion bring to mind the 14th verse of the 22nd Psalm: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.”

  As he slowed down his breathing Jesus went into what is called respiratory acidosis. The carbon dioxide in his blood was dissolved as carbonic acid and this caused the acidity of his blood to increase. This eventually led to an irregular heartbeat. His agony was nearing the end. His loss of tissue fluids reached a critical level; his compressed heart struggled to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into his tissue, his tortured lungs were making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. His markedly dehydrated tissues were sending a flood of pain stimuli to his brain.

Jesus’ mother was watching everything the soldiers did to her son! How could she stand it!!

In the condition Jesus was in he was still thinking about others. He asked his father to forgive those who were crucifying him. He promised one of those being crucified with him that he would see him that day in paradise because of his faith. And he told his close friend John to take care of his mother after he was gone.

With his heart beating erratically, my Savior, Jesus, knew he was near his moment of death. It was at this point he was able to declare his battle cry of victory “It is finished!” And then shortly thereafter he spoke the words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Jesus then died of cardiac arrest.

One expert in forensic medicine, Frederick Zugibe, actually volunteered to tie himself to a cross to monitor what physically takes place during a crucifixion. He concluded that victims died from "hypovolemic shock." This condition sets in when a body has lost so much blood and fluid that the heart can't continue to function.

Jesus literally died of a broken heart!

Jesus gave his life on purpose.

His actions were intentional!

He was compelled to take each step and endure every agony to the end.

But why?!

Was Jesus insane? Was he deluded? Was he a masochist? Why did he go through all of this horrific agony? The Bible tells us he could have called legions of angels to rescue him. What held him on that cross? It certainly was not the iron spikes! Any of us giving thought to this must wonder what in the world was going on here! Why did Jesus allow himself to be excruciatingly tortured to death?

I try to conceive of the cruelty or foolishness or evil that I would have to attribute to the Father, God, if He allowed His Son to be tortured by His own creatures unless there was some incomprehensibly essential reason for doing so. I ask myself: ‘Would I allow my son or daughter to be treated like this if I had the power to stop it?’ Or I ask myself: ‘For what reason would I be willing to allow my son or daughter to go through such torture?’ Am I kinder or better or more caring than my Creator? I would not allow it! I would do anything I could to stop it! Am I better than God? Well I know better than that!!

Seriously, can any of us honestly propose that this ultimate sacrifice God made of His beloved Son based on His love for all mankind be anything less than the absolute most amazing action ever taken in all the history of all humanity? Can we?!

I believe the Father gave the life of His one and only precious Son intentionally because He loves each single one of us! I believe Jesus gave his life intentionally because of his love for each single one of us! There is no greater show of love than for a person to lay down his life for his friend. Jesus calls us his friend! We are the friends of Jesus. Each of us! Jesus died for his friends.

His actions were more intentional than we could ever realize! He has loved us from before the time we were born and he initiated a plan before time began to rescue us out of our broken condition that He knew we would find ourselves in. He knew before we could ever have a clue, that our souls were in a desperately hopeless condition relative to our relationship with our God.

From the moment man first disobeyed the Father we died spiritually and then we became prisoners to our sin. The justice of God demanded a sacrifice, restoring to Himself His own again. So the lamb, His only Son, was freely offered and atonement for our sin was forever made.

The Father and Jesus hate our sin because it causes us to die, and Calvary is the measure of His hatred. The only way to solve the sin problem and for us to ever be made alive spiritually, ever again, was for our brother to give his life for us. We needed a relative, a kinsman, to give his life to purchase back our souls. We needed someone who was perfect and therefore able to stand in our place before God. Jesus is that kinsman redeemer! Jesus is our brother and he loves us. He hated what was destroying us and He gave his life intentionally so he could destroy that which was destroying us and so that we could live with him forever.

Oh how our hearts cry out for justice in this world. We cry out for fairness. We want ourselves and others to be treated fairly and it goes against the grain of our souls when we witness injustice. Injustice offends us and it offends God. The bad news is we all come up short, we have all been found wanting because none of us are perfect. None of us are perfectly right and just all the time! The good news is Jesus is right and just all the time and Jesus met the requirement of justice for each of us and made it possible for us to all receive forgiveness, mercy and grace. So we receive way better than justice and fairness. We get to be loved no matter what our condition or what we have done! We get to have things made right when nothing seemed to really be right and when there was no hope. Because of Jesus!

The crucifixion of Jesus reminds us not only of the brokenness of the world but it also reminds us that in those times of suffering and pain, we are not alone.  In the person of Jesus we encounter a God who stands with us in the suffering, a God who is not apart from that burden and pain, but one who is in it with us.  He endured blunt force physical and psychological trauma for our sakes! He understands our feelings and our struggles!

Jesus says:

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I am gentle and humble. And you will find rest for your souls. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

Out of his great love for us Jesus died intentionally because he knew he was going to rise from the grave and in so doing he was going to defeat death and defeat the grave. His love being so immense and so far reaching he wanted us to live forever and never have to die ever again.

The intentional actions of Jesus make God’s forgiveness an option. Before Jesus gave his life forgiveness was not available. The intentional actions of Jesus make life after death possible. Before Jesus gave his life there was no life after death. The intentional actions of Jesus defeated the enemy of our soul, defeated death and gave us victory over the grave.

The single overarching problem of all of human kind was the break in our relationship with our Creator, the one who made us and loves us. The intentional actions of Jesus solved this unsolvable problem and restored our relationship with our Creator. Each person who so desires can avail him or herself of this solution and throw themselves into the arms of God and live in his presence forever. And this can start right here on earth, right now, by faith!

But God loves us all too much to force us to love him. So he honors each of us who choose to go our own way! And he will honor that decision after we die! And the consequences are we will live forever without his presence and without his love. So we need to give serious consideration to our decision when it comes to Jesus.

Because Jesus was serious and intentional in his actions, we need to be the same. Each one of us needs to intentionally accept his sacrifice on our behalf and accept his love, or we need to intentionally decide in the cold light of day to deny his gift of life and turn our back on his love. No one can make that decision for us. Not even God!

He knew what was going to result from his dying and his getting up from the grave. He knew that it would give us life forever and his great love compelled him to intentionally endure it all. And he is satisfied with the results of all he had to go through. He is satisfied that we have life instead of death and that we will live forever with him as his brother. Each person who comes to Jesus he will in no way reject! Not ever!!

Jesus loves us and he knew what we needed and he was willing to do what had to be done. There is no greater gift! There is no greater news ever heard on earth! God truly made it possible for there to be peace between Him and each of us because of his good will and his love toward each of us. Someday this reality will be fully manifested for all who avail themselves of his love.

Jesus intentionally gave his life . . . for you . . . because he loves you!

Mark Phelps

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Motivation: Fear or Love?

The concept of how to motivate people in business and in life is something Americans care a lot about. What I’m writing about today is the way my father, Fred W. Phelps Sr. chose to motivate his children. And later how he tried to motivate his church and ultimately his community.

I think when my father started out as a pastor he was honestly telling people what he believed to be true. And initially I think he thought what he was saying was for the benefit of his listeners. But what my father did that hurt him and a whole lot of other people in the process was he started to isolate himself and would not allow anyone to give him feedback. About his thinking. About his preaching. And ultimately about the way he lived his life. And a man out of the loop of feedback from his peers is a man who can go astray. And to say my father went astray is truly an understatement.

What my father did was find what he thought were the most important rules from the bible for how to live properly and then he pounded those into the minds of his listeners. Over and over and over again! Those of us who later got out of my father’s cult found out that my father cherry picked things from the Bible that mirrored his growing hatred of himself and other people. So he truly chose over time to preach hate. The hate was actually in his own heart but he picked concepts out of the Bible that he thought might support his views and then ever so subtly he twisted them. And to do that he pretty much had to throw the true God and His Son out. My father especially disliked Jesus. Who he understood was loving and forgiving and because of that had to either ignore or malign.

When I first came to understand that Jesus had died for my sin and actually was a loving, caring Savior my life was at a very different place than it is today. I had no concept of the fact that the Father and the Son meant for me to live in relationship with them first and foremost. And ONLY after that they would empower me to live my life out in a loving way, with their love actually flowing through me. I had no idea about this kind of relationship when I was a young man in my father’s church. My father never explained how a person was to live up to his rigid rules. He just beat the rules into us. There was so much information spewed forth at us with rigid harsh expectations for how we were to live our lives but there was no instruction given on how that was to be accomplished. Truly your nightmare leadership style to be sure!

We did not understand anything about the power and the hope that was available to us for living the new life Christ wanted for us. Well for that matter most of us didn’t even understand that Christ had a new life he wanted for us! At least this understanding wasn’t coming from my father’s preaching. What we did understand was fear! What we got was my father’s endless teaching, mostly of his own making with little connection to the heart of God and the Bible’s plain meaning and packed with plenty of don’ts, with boat loads of fear mongering and deception, but honestly very few dos, certainly no instruction on how, and no hint of love!

What I have learned over the years is that people who are in a life giving relationship with the Father and the Son rarely have time to do anything negative or judgmental because they are so filled up with the love of God. The people who tend to bash, in my experience, are the ones far, far from God. And because they have no relationship with God they resort to rules.

I struggled to live up to the standards apparently required by God (remember, this was according to my father) and the meeting of this standard was imposed with brutality by my father, the preacher. I know now that it is possible to be aware of the facts of Jesus and his death for your sake without knowing what his death and resurrection truly means. I actually think this happens to a lot more of us than we realize if we aren’t truly given the teaching we need to understand this amazing life Christ wants to give us. That was my experience.

I had a fair amount of the “head knowledge” of the Bible and the facts of Jesus’ amazing death and resurrection from the dead. What I didn’t have was an understanding that that historic event had real power connected with it to allow a young man in Topeka, Kansas to be able to live a very different kind of life. Eventually when the head knowledge became heart knowledge, and of a practical sort, my life changed. So I can honestly say to you that I am no longer living the life I used to live.

Here’s why. The Bible says some things happened when I became a follower of Christ . . . a change occurred that was as simple as the flipping of a light switch and as life altering as a baby getting born.

One part of the flipping of the switch was me having, for the first time in my life, help and power from God to live the life He wanted me to live. And the help would come from Him! In the Bible it says “It was through reading the Scripture that I came to realize that I could never find God’s favor by trying—and failing—to obey the laws. I came to realize that acceptance with God comes by believing in Christ. ‘I have been crucified with Christ: and I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the real life I now have within this body is a result of my trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Wrapped up in the gift of responding to God’s love and becoming a child of His was this amazing truth that God would live in me and with me and that because of that amazing fact, my life would never be the same. Because of God’s love for me and the fact He was now actually living His life in and through mine I could live my life in a completely different manner.

Okay, so what was the point about all of us trying to obey God’s law on our own? Do we motivate ourselves by our fear of God so we won’t misbehave? Do we honestly think it is because God’s desire is to keep us in constant fear and that He is going to crush us like bugs if we don’t toe the line? No! Then what is the point of us using fear, on our self and others, as a motivator for good behavior?

Remember the definition of “the law” in the Old Testament was simple and written requirements God set out for the Jewish people that would allow them to stay in the right relationship with Him. God created the Ten Commandments FOR His people. They were there for people’s protection just like guard rails on a curvy mountainous highway. But a cursory reading of the Ten Commandments brings us to the conclusion that no one has ever kept the law. All of us in the human race have broken those commandments. We have lied and coveted and not honored our parents and a whole lot more. The New Testament says something huge. It says “If someone obeys all of God’s laws except one, that person is guilty of breaking all of them.”

Wow. That’s a high standard. What’s that about? Who could even think about obeying all the laws of God all the time? When God made the universe He set it up as a moral universe. What that really means is it’s the kind of universe where the things you do matter. Your deeds have consequences. If you hit somebody you break their nose. And you actually break more than bones. You end up doing harm to the relationship you have with that person. God understands this cause and effect relationship. He set it up that way. What we reap we sow. Our actions matter. God expected people to live good, moral lives where they would show compassion and kindness and fight injustice. He would call the people He made to be of the highest moral fiber. But any thinking person realizes that God also gave people the ability to break His laws when He gave them free will. And people do break His laws with great regularity as we see each night on the news and as we walk down the streets of our villages, towns and cities.

Well that’s fine, but what was God really up to when He told us if we couldn’t obey all His laws it’s like we are guilty of breaking them all? When you read the Bible from cover to cover you see that God never lets up on the high standard He sets. In fact, He says things so beyond our comprehension they almost make us laugh. Like when He says “Be holy as I am holy.” Seriously?!

Well actually, yes. He was serious. This whole issue of God’s law itself and whether anyone had a prayer of keeping it completely was worked out by Jesus as He preached the Sermon on the Mount. On that mountain Jesus explained that the standard God set for Old Testament Jews He still wanted us to uphold but that Jesus was refining it to help us realize the standard was to be made even higher. But Jesus also explains in the Sermon on the Mount that this high standard has great and wonderful rewards. Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God.” So His high standard, while high indeed, has a wonderful outcome. Jesus shows these high standards partly to encourage people how they could live happy, holy, and productive and caring lives. But he had another purpose.

Wait till you read the Sermon on the Mount again. You will see that the standard is truly Godlike. A standard so high it can’t be lived up to by we who are mortal! And you find out, as you wrestle with this thought, there was a reason why God did this. And that by showing the standard as insurmountably high must have been God’s point! Why else would you raise a bar even higher for a people who had never lived up to it in the first place! He wanted to make it really clear we couldn’t do it on our own and that without His Spirit living in us it was NEVER going to happen!

Um . . . does it have this odd feeling like we are being set up for failure? By God?

No, actually. It’s more like a master builder, who after asking his students to build a building as high as the heavens, tells them that not for one minute are they going to have to build this building alone. And that He will be with them each step of the way. When Jesus preached the truths of the Sermon on the Mount He built in the promises or the gifts we’d receive in each high standard he set out. When He says blessed are the merciful, He follows immediately with “they shall receive mercy.” So, yes, He is asking us to show mercy on people that it is sometimes hard to show mercy, too, but He reminds us those people will be shown mercy in unique ways. He is such an encouraging God! When He gets to the part where He says those who are persecuted for His sake are blessed He says “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in Heaven is great.” So when Jesus was setting this high standard He was promising us those actions would bring blessing to us, even if it would be in ways we couldn’t imagine. So these high, really impossible standards had promises built right in to them. And the reality is we are hard-wired by God for a desire to live these moral, honorable lives.

In most every place on the planet people want to live this exact kind of life with high moral standards. A truly well lived life! We can see this by the constitutions and legal systems of countries and municipalities but also in the rules we make for our own families. We really do care. And we want to live up to the standards of our own countries’ laws but also to a higher law. We are drawn to God’s law whether we understand it’s His or not. We want to be people of honesty and integrity who are able to show compassion and love towards other people. We really do! We see evidence of this desire in our response to what we read in the newspapers because we are embarrassed and saddened when we ourselves or others are not living up to high standards, ours or someone else’s. We are created in God’s image and there is a real desire in each of us to do what we understand to be right.

Can our desire for goodness and honesty and kindness ever be perverted? Actually made into the exact opposite? Well, yes. Little children in any culture have strong needs for belonging and acceptance and we see children following the adults around them, the good ones and the evil ones. Children and even adults can be taught to do wrong and essentially change their bent if there is enough incentive, coercion or fear involved.

If you look at the news today you see individuals being drawn into and indoctrinated in the evils of terrorism who as young children would never have dreamed of doing these things. And when I look at my family I see my nephews and nieces behaving the same way my brothers and sisters were trained to behave by my father. And what the masters of evil in any culture count on initially in their recruitment tactics is the human need to belong. If that doesn’t work, the teachers of evil move on to scare tactics and violence. But if we look at each person’s past, no matter how far back we have to look I believe we can see evidence of a desire to do what’s right and good and life giving in each of us, because each of us is made in the image of God. What I also see is with the folks in my family who have been able to leave the fold sometimes it’s the simplest things that let them know they must go. For some of them it is finding out that there truly are good and compassionate people on the “outside” even though they had always been told the opposite. Isn’t it interesting that love truly can ultimately prevail over fear?

I was many years into my life before Jesus’ love for me became the motivation for my actions instead of fear. I was taught to fear by my father. And my father did not just see to it that I was terrified of him, but that I was terrified of God. Somehow my father believed the only way to get “good behavior” out of us children was to terrify us. He must not have believed how much children are wired to want to please their parents. If my father had given me the slightest encouragement to be a good son and had understood my desire to please him and see a smile on his face or a “well done, son” that would have been so motivating. I had no idea that goodness or honesty or kindness or love could be the motivation for anything! I only knew fear as a motivator. And sadly for a while I motivated myself and even others by fear. It was what I had been taught and it was really my mother tongue. God rescued me from my family but I had a whole lot of unlearning of fear to do to get where I am today.

But now goodness and honesty and kindness and love all are motivations in my relationship with God. Now I know my God. I mean I know Him at a personal level. Or I am getting to know Him. If you love a person, your love goes beyond the facts of that person, goes beyond the intellectual knowledge you have about that person, but it is rooted in the facts about that person. For example, I love my wife because she is attractive to me, she is kind, she is sweet and she is nice and she is a great friend. All these things are facts about my wife, and therefore I love her. But my love goes beyond these facts. I could know all of these facts about my wife and not be in love with her and put my trust in her, but I do. My decision to love my wife goes beyond the evidence and facts of who she is, to the point of connecting with her essence, her soul and heart. We have shared thousands of special personal experiences that have deepened our mutual love, respect and submission. My wife and I are two souls who know one another intimately and deeply and will love one another forever.

It is the same with my love of God! My relationship with Jesus Christ goes beyond just knowing the historical facts about him, yet it is rooted in those exact historical facts. I believe in Jesus on the basis of the historical evidence, but my relationship with Jesus goes way beyond the evidence. I put my trust in Him and walk with Him on a daily basis. So my relationship with Jesus is no longer based just on my head knowledge and the information I have about Him. And it is not based any longer on fear. It is based on a daily, vital living loving relationship with Him. Very much like my relationship with my wife. He is living and real and a part of my minute by minute living! And he can be that for you if you want this!

Even with all of this, fear still creeps into my motivations for things at times, when stress is high or when I have failed. But I have had enough years now of knowing God’s love and goodness that the fear evaporates within seconds or within minutes now and I remember that God is my friend and a present help in trouble, not my adversary.

If you have been motivated by fear instead of love because of past abuse or mistreatment, know this is a process to being set free from it. But, oh, is it worth it! Love is such a beautiful basis for a relationship. And it will allow you to finally “be” you. With God and with others!

Mark Phelps