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2. Commitment is from the Heart

– Chapter 2 –

Commitment is from the Heart

Commitment of the heart

In this chapter we show that commitment runs through the Sermon on the Mount. Let us start with the following statement by the Lord Jesus:

It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a cert­ifi­cate of divorce.” But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immoral­ity, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman com­mits adult­ery. (Mt.5:31-32, ESV)

What has this to do with commitment? In a marriage, two persons com­mit to each other. When the commitment breaks down at the heart level, divorce is often the next step. Where there is no heart com­mitment, marriage loses its God-intended meaning. Some peo­ple marry for money or citizenship, or by the compulsion of circumstance. But regardless of the rea­son, can there be a meaningful marriage with­out com­mit­ment?

Sin is fundamentally non-commitment or contra-commit­ment; it is the refusal to be committed to a person or to God. That is why adultery harms the marriage commit­ment, and why God says, “I hate divorce” (Mal.2:16). God hates non-commitment in a marriage just as He hates non-commitment to Him by His people.

In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam not to eat the fruit of a particular tree, yet the whole event is summed up in Adam’s disobed­ience. Can there be true obedience without commit­ment? “Obedience” is another word that loses its meaning when commit­ment is removed from it, for what will remain is no longer heart obed­ience.

Commitment in speech

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about divorce one moment, then trustworthiness of speech the next moment. His state­ments in the Ser­mon may seem disconnected until we see that they all bring out various aspects of commitment.

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; any­thing more than this comes from evil. (Mt.5:33-37, ESV)

If I say yes, I commit myself to doing what I said I will do. If I say no, I refrain from doing what I said I won’t do. Either way there is com­mit­ment. Your character has to manifest commit­ment in your speech whet­her it is “yes” or “no,” with nothing more said. No vow is needed. Making a vow adds nothing to what you have said. A vow is often said for the pur­pose of convincing someone that you mean what you have said. But fundament­ally, your char­acter has to be such that you always mean what you say, vow or no vow.

As we go through the Sermon on the Mount, we will see its under­lying theme of commitment. As for vows, there is such a transforma­t­ion of character that our word becomes our bond and commitment. You wouldn’t trust someone who could one moment say “yes” and the next moment say “no.” And because God’s own character expresses commit­ment, He can­not toler­ate the non-commitment which is so typical of the unregen­erate person.

Love is ultimately a commitment

Continuing in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus says:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collect­ors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you do­ing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You there­fore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is per­fect. (Mt.5:43-48, ESV)

The opening statement is, “You shall love your neigh­bor”. Pon­der for a moment on the meaning of love. Fundamentally, what is love if there is no com­mitment? Can you give me a definition of love that ex­cludes commit­ment? That would be impossible because commitment is the essence of love. Many people miss this vital point and think of love as a feeling. But the biblical meaning of love is a love that is rooted in commit­ment rather than in feelings.

Over the years I have asked people who were planning on getting married, “What do you like about him?” or “What do you like about her?” To my surprise, often the answer is, “I like his/her looks”. And what does that mean? Do you like the hairstyle? Or the eyes? I would scratch my head and say to myself, “Are beautiful eyes going to be the found­ation of this mar­riage?” They sometimes go deeper: “I like his/her style.” What does that mean? Are you referring to the way one talks or dresses? If you fall in love for sup­erficial reasons, what will happen when one of you falls sick, grows old, or has thin hair? Is that the end of the relation­ship?

Surely we have to build commitment on a firmer foundation. At the very least I wouldn’t commit myself in marriage unless the two of us share the same life goals. We will travel the same road, fight the same battles, and strive for the same goals. This will provide a stronger basis for com­mitting to each another.

A marriage based on feelings or external attractiveness but not deep substance has no foundation for commit­ment. If you take com­mit­ment out of love, the word love will have no more meaning as far as its biblical defin­ition is concerned.

Three points on love and commitment

1. Love is based on commitment, not emotions

We love the neighbor or love one another, not because you are lovely or I am lovely, but because God is lovely and has com­manded us to love. This eliminates emotions as the foundation of love. Commitment is the only sure basis on which love be­tween people can survive. If you base a com­mitment on “liking” the other person, the commitment will not survive, for it takes only one careless word to wreck the relation­ship. If we take commitment out of love, there would be no more love to talk about.

2. The commitment to love is a matter of obedience

The motivation of love should not be mere liking. In Jesus’ teach­ing, the reason we love and commit is not that the other person is lovely but that God has commanded us to love. Hence the commit­ment to love is an act of obedience.

We love the unlovely because God, who is lovely, has commanded us to love the unlovely, even our enem­y. From your perspective, your enemy is the most unlovely of all. If you love only the lovely, it would be imposs­ible for you to love the enemy. It is hard enough to love a friend when you know his or her short­comings, never mind loving an enemy.

The fact is that we cannot love our enemy except by God’s power. We have enough difficulty loving our friends. Many wives have a hard time loving their husbands, and many husbands their wives. But where there is commitment on our part, there is grace from God that empow­ers us to do what we normally cannot do. When you live by the power of God, you will know that He is real.

I know that God is real because I have taken up the challenge to com­mit to Him and, contrary to my nature, to do His will. When I do what I normally cannot do, I know that His grace is em­power­ing me. Many Christians find no joy in the Christ­ian life because they haven’t taken up the challenge of com­mitment. But if you take up this chal­lenge, you will experience God’s power.

3. Commitment comes from a heart transformed by God’s power

True commitment comes from the heart and is not an external perfor­m­ance for others to see. This comes out in Matthew 6 in the Sermon on the Mount with its teaching on fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Commit­ment comes from a transformed nat­ure, not by gritting one’s teeth and saying, “I will see this through.” What we might call “heroic commit­ment” is really nothing more than an at­tempt to do God’s will in our own strength. It is sure to fail because sooner or later we will get exhausted and frust­rated. You may be sin­cere in your commit­ment but you are still depend­ing on your own strength. You need to commit to God from your heart and draw strength from Him.

The commitment that Jesus calls for in the Sermon on the Mount is impossible except by God’s power. I have seen Christ­ians make an ef­fort at commitment and then give up because they are doing it in their own strength. Try loving your enemy in your own strength, and you won’t make it beyond a minute or two.

The other side of the picture: God’s commitment to us

Let us delve deeper into commitment, right into God’s very nature. In First John chapter 4, twice we see the monumental statement that God is love:

The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love (v.8) …. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him. (v.16)

Twice it is said that God is love. Since God is love, those who follow Him must also walk in love. And since commit­ment is the foundation of love, commit­ment is intrinsic to the nature of God who is love.

But our commitment to God is incomplete until we see the other side of the picture: God’s commitment to us. This is already seen in the same chapter: “We love because He first loved us” (1Jn.4:19). Similarly, we commit to God because He first committed to us.

In the remainder of the present chapter, we will look at God’s com­mit­ment to us ra­ther than our commitment to God. Indeed, towards the end of Mat­thew 5, the Sermon on the Mount shifts its focus from our com­mit­ment to God to God’s commitment to us. Jesus says:

… that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Mt.5:45, NIV)

Here we see God’s commitment to us on the basis of the fact that we are His creatures. When He sends rain on the earth, does He bless only the righteous, steer­ing the rain to their fields while the unright­eous receive no rain and starve? The biblical answer is that God shows His basic com­mitment to all people whether they are righteous or un­right­eous. He gives rain and sunshine to the unrighteous even if they don’t thank Him for a successful harvest but attribute it to their own indust­rious­ness. But if God holds back the rain for a year, they will begin to see their human limitat­ions. If the rain is held back two years, their help­lessness will become acute. If God holds back the rain for three years as in the days of Elijah when God punished the people of Israel for their disobed­ience, their situation will become unimaginably dire.

God is committed to His creatures. Whether you are righteous or un­right­eous, God gives you rain, sunshine, air to breathe, and health. In this world do we see a pattern of good health among the righteous and poor health among the unrighteous? In fact, if there is any pattern at all, it may be the other way around, in which case you might feel that God is partial towards the unrighteous. Psalm 73 laments that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer.

God our Creator is committed to His creatures even if they don’t thank Him. Do you thank God for what He has given you? Are you com­mitted to your Creator? Many people are not committed, not even when they have good health or a high-paying job. Isn’t it amaz­ing that God is gracious to a world that doesn’t acknowledge Him? But there is more:

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? …. And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. (Mt.6:26,28, NIV)

Look around you. Do birds depend on things such as barns and tractors? They don’t even sow seeds! Yet they are vibrant creat­ures that fly and hop and sing. God has seen to it that His creatures have food and other provis­ions.

Look at the flowers around you. One thing I like about Hong Kong is that there are flowers all year round. I wonder if the people of Hong Kong might take flowers for granted. In Canada, flowers bloom only at a cer­tain time of the year, but when they bloom, I would often pause and admire their beauty. Not even Solomon in his kingly glory could compete with the beauty of flowers (v.29).

When you bring home a rose, you admire its beauty, but it dies in a few days’ time. But while it was living, it had value and mean­ing in dis­playing God’s beautiful design in creation and His care in provid­ing for the needs of His creation. If God clothes the grass of the field with beauty, which is alive today and gone tomorrow, will He not do much more for you, “O men of little faith” (v.30)?

Trusting God for our needs

Jesus is saying all this not to increase our theological know­ledge of God’s attributes, but to teach us to trust God for our physical needs. In China I lived by the words in Matthew 6 every day for three years. Every morning when I got up with no food for the day, I would say, “Father, you look after the birds of the air. I have nothing to eat today, so please look after me, your child.” Every day my Father would pro­vide for me without fail. You can imagine what that does to your faith as it is being built on the solid exper­ience of trusting Him, committing to Him, and know­ing that His word never fails. I know the truth of these words, and I hope you do too. It would be a great pity if the only thing you know in this world is securing your own life with your own hands, at the cost of not experien­cing God’s reality.

At the conclusion of the first full-time discipleship training which I led in Montreal, I told the trainees that they will be sent to the province of Ontario. I said to them, “You’re going to learn to trust in God. I’m sending you out to Ontario with only a few dollars in your pockets, and for the next month you’re going to trust God for all your needs.” They had only enough money to travel to Ontario, plus a few dollars for the month ahead. I said, “We will see whether God looks after His servants or not, whether He will provide for your needs or not. If the Bible is not true or God is not real, forget about committing your life to serving Him. What’s the point of giving up your careers to serve a God you can’t put your trust in? If you end up starving in the com­ing month, forget the whole matter, and pack your bags and go home.”

When they returned to Montreal a month later, they weren’t any thin­ner than when they began their journey. They were rejoicing in God and sharing how He had provided for their needs for a whole month. One month isn’t a long time, but even in that short time they had learned a lot about God’s reality. I know that my God is real!

This is not tempting God but applying what Jesus has taught us in places like Luke 12. Trust God to meet your needs. Don’t be anxious about food and clothing. Don’t store up treasure on earth but give your riches to the poor. Then go out in full dependence on God and see what He will do. That is commit­ment! What’s the point of talking about com­mitment without getting real about it? And how did the dis­ciples follow the Lord Jesus? They lived as he lived. Just as Jesus had nowhere to lay his head, so they received no adequate finan­cial support from any earthly source. Every day they would venture forth, trust­ing in the Father.

Do you dare entrust your life to God? If you don’t consider Him trust­worthy enough to look after you in this life, what is the basis of your con­fidence of having eternal life in the age to come? You may be hoping for the best, yet you aren’t really sure that after you die, God will raise you up. If you can’t trust in Him now, how will you trust in Him for your future? That is why so many Christians lack convict­ion in their Christian message or life direction. They have not under­stood God’s commitment to them. It is most exciting to live in this world when you know that the eternal God is committed to you! This will bring peace and joy into your life in a way that few have experienced.

Jesus tells us not to be anxious over things such as clothing (Mt.6:28). Anxiety is the negation, even denial, of commit­ment. But when I am com­mitted, I am confident. I am no longer anxious but have peace in my heart. When I know that God is committed to me, I have noth­ing to be anxious about.

God’s further commitment to us, His children

Matthew 7 takes us to the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, right into God’s commitment to us. We have seen that His commitment to us is based on the fact of creation, for we are His creatures. But beyond that basic commitment, He is committed to His children on a deeper level:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Mt.7:7-11, ESV)

If God is your Father, how much more than your earthly father will He give good gifts to you! He will see to it that your needs are met. In China, when I was by myself and penniless, with no place to sleep, I had to de­pend on God totally. Every morning I would say, “Lord, I am your child and you are my Father,” and He would never fail me.

God the Creator is committed to us His creatures, which is why even the unbeliever will have his needs met. But if further we are God’s child­ren, He will be committed to us on a yet deeper level, as Father to son or daughter. “But to all who have received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (Jn.1:12)

In summary, God’s commitment to us is expressed on two levels: the level of creat­ion, expressed to all mankind; and the level of sonship, expressed to His children. If we are the sons of God, we will experience His commit­ment on these two levels. Let it sink into your heart that God is committed to you!

How God expresses His commitment to us depends on how we commit to Him

A vital principle emerges from the Sermon on the Mount: God is com­mitted to us, but how He expresses His commitment depends on how we express our commitment to Him. Whether He blesses us or judges us, whether He deals with us graciously or sternly, depends on how we res­pond to Him. Even God’s judg­ment is an expression of His com­mit­ment to us.

Different people experience God differently because they commit to Him differently. You will experience God in one fashion or another, depend­ing on your commit­ment to Him. If you are committed to God, He will respond to you in one way. If you are not committed to God, He will respond in a different way. Matthew 6:1 says:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in or­der to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (ESV)

If you practice your righteousness for others to see, you won’t get a reward from God. But if you practice your right­eousness in secret (e.g., by giving to the poor in secret), “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (v.4). In the one case you get no reward from God; in the other you get a reward. How you respond to God and His word will determine whe­ther you get a reward or not. God’s commitment to you is always there, but how you experience it depends on how you res­pond to Him.

The same principle is repeated in verse 5 (no reward from God) and verse 6 (reward from God), and again in verse 16 (no reward from God) and verse 18 (reward from God). Those who receive reward from men in the form of human praise won’t get any further reward from God.

The link between God’s commitment and our commitment contin­ues in the Sermon on the Mount. Whether we are forgiven depends on whet­her we forgive others. God shows His commit­ment to us by for­giving us if we forgive, or not forgiving us if we don’t forgive:

If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Mt.6:14-15, NIV)

Matthew 7:1-2 brings out a similar principle:

Do not judge or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (NIV)

If you are committed to someone, you will do what is good for him or her. But judging a person is an act that elevates you above com­mit­ment: You are saying that you don’t owe him any commit­ment, yet you stand above him as judge. You have taken God’s place in regard to that person, but without God’s love and com­mitment. Jesus says that the standard you measure to others will be measured to you. Exegeti­cally this is a “divine passive,” an indirect reference to God: God is not men­tioned explicitly but it is implied that He is the one who will treat you according to how you treat others. It also reveals whether you are obeying God. If you judge others, you are disobeying God’s command not to judge. If you love others, you are obeying His command to love. If you judge others, God will judge you. If you love others, God will pour forth His love on you.

To experience God’s abundant love, simply obey the com­mand to love. To experience God’s judgment (which is also an express­ion of His commit­ment to us), go out and judge others; then you will see what God will do to you even though you are a Christian.

The same principle is at work in Matthew 7:7: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” Again it is your act that draws out a response from God. Ask and it will be given to you. If you don’t ask, you won’t get anything. If you seek after God with all your heart, you will find Him. If you don’t seek after God, you won’t find Him. If you don’t knock on the door of the Kingdom, it won’t be opened to you.

The Christian life is not one in which we sit back and wait for some­thing to drop from the sky and onto our laps. It involves a dynamic of asking, seeking, and knocking. God will respond to our actions be­cause He doesn’t want us to be puppets but people who take the initiative to seek what is good in His eyes. The Christian life is one of constant interaction between God and us. Jesus continues:

Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree can­not bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Mt.7:17-19, NIV)

If we bear good fruit, we will receive blessing from God. If we bear bad fruit, His commitment to us will be expressed in judgment, for every bad tree will be cut down and thrown into the fire of God’s judg­ment. Never take God’s judgment to be non-commit­ment on God’s part. In fact, judg­ment is an act of God’s absol­ute commit­ment to His creatures. The responsibil­ity of committing to God rests on us. The buck is in our hands, and we can­not pass it back to God.

Not just in the New Testament but also the Old Testament do we see the principle that God’s response is based on our response:

The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, accord­ing to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. To the faith­ful you show your­self faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blame­less, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the crooked you show yourself shrewd. (Psalm 18:24-26, NIV)

The pure will find God pure, the loyal will find God loyal, the crooked will find God hard to deal with. God is to you what you are to Him. If you start playing games with God, you will end up in a losing game. If you are honest with God, He will be honest with you. God is never dis­honest but if you have a dis­honest or crooked mind, your view of God as a dishonest God will be shaped by your neg­ative exper­ience of Him. Differ­ent people experience God different­ly. Some don’t experience Him at all because they don’t respond to Him.

A psalmist wrote, “Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done” (Ps.62:12), for God responds to us according to what we do. The same principle applies to Israel: “I will deal with them accord­ing to their own conduct, and I will judge them by their own standards. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” (Ezek.7:27, HCSB)

The way my daughter relates to me affects the way I relate to her. If she is disobedient, she may discover that her dad can be severe. But if she is obedient, she will discover that her dad is very kind. I am puz­zled as to why she would sometimes choose to draw severity from me when I am more than happy to show her kindness. If you are a parent, you would what I mean. God likewise wants to bless us instead of being hard on us. So why would we want to get into trouble with Him? As we saw in Matthew 7:11, God is willing to pour His blessings on you, so why not give Him a chance to do that for you?

Choose God’s blessing

In Deuteronomy 27 and 28, God set before Israel the choice be­tween curses (chapter 27) and blessings (chapter 28). He doesn’t want to curse us, but if we live in sin and evil, His commitment to us will be expressed in judgment.

Mounts Ebal and Gerizim are the two mount­ains in Samaria where Deut­eronomy 27 and 28 took place. The curses were pronounced from Ebal, the bless­ings from Gerizim. It was an impress­ive event in which all Israel was gathered in the open, and they heard the curses and the blessings being called out from the respective mount­ains. Whenever I travel to Israel and pass between the two mountains, I would remem­ber this event. Whether we receive a blessing or a curse is something of our own choice, a principle that runs through the Old and New Testaments. God said to Israel, “You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth; Therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquit­ies” (Amos 3:2).

The choice is clear. Commitment to God is inseparable from com­mit­ment to righteousness. We must choose one side of the fence or the other — hot or cold — but lukewarmness will get us no­where. If you have pro­blems in the Christian life such as difficulty in pray­er or in ex­perienc­ing God’s reality, examine your life to see if you are treating sin as some­thing trivial. To know God, we must be committed to what is good, true, holy, and righteous. If you are clinging to a sin, even what you regard as a min­or sin, it will block your communion with God. “If I regard wicked­ness in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (Ps.66:18).

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