Tag Archives: Discipleship

Follow God – not fear.

How many of us allow fear to influence our understanding of God’s will and dictate the extent to which we serve and obey Him? When the Holy Spirit prompts us in a direction we don’t want to go how many of us use a rational response to explain our disobedience?

  • I can’t move to that neighborhood, Lord. It’s too dangerous and I don’t want to put my family’s safety at risk.
  • I can’t go on a mission trip there, Lord. It’s too hostile to Christianity. They might put me in jail if they learn I’m a believer.
  • I can’t leave my job to work at a non-profit, Lord. The reduction in salary would force me to work another ten years before I retire.
  • I can’t tell people at work about my faith, Lord. That’ll jeopardize my career and sabotage my next promotion.
  • I can’t give generously to the church, Lord. That’ll undermine my 401k and diminish my quality of life in retirement.

Whenever we use logic and commonsense to refute God’s call and justify our disobedience we demonstrate a lack of trust. Such actions reveal doubt and a failure to exhibit the courage of our convictions. We may want to follow God down whatever path He lays out but fear paralyzes us.

To overcome that paralysis we need a reminder that God’s omnipotence does not require favorable circumstances to emerge victorious. He can accomplish anything through anyone. In fact, He is far more likely to use the weak and unqualified to achieve the remarkable and miraculous, then He is to use the powerful and competent to accomplish the ordinary.

We must remember that God often assigns endeavors that appear impossible, sends us on journeys that look perilous, and instructs us to pursue objectives that seem overwhelming. And He does so for several reasons. First, it forces us to rely entirely on Him. It is only in the crucible of total helplessness that our trust in God truly flourishes. After all, if we can accomplish God’s will on our own strength than we learn only self-reliance not God-reliance.

Second, it refines and matures our relationship with Christ. In situations where our focus must remain on God constantly, our understanding of Him and His character develops and deepens. We come to know Him more intimately, and we become more like Him in every detail.

Finally, it prepares us for a new mission. As we respond obediently to God’s direction today, He equips and prepares us for our next assignment tomorrow. In time our baby-steps of faith grow into giant leaps of faith.

Take some time today to ask God for an assignment that strengthens your faith, fuels your trust, and draws you closer to Him. And make that a prayer habit moving forward.

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Ambassadors for Christ.

You may recall the controversy that erupted several years ago when an employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) leaked extensive details about an intrusive government surveillance program that spied on Americans. Considerable debate centered on whether the leaker acted responsibly in releasing such specifics.

One segment of the country believed his actions amounted to treason and argued he compromised America’s interests; and therefore violated his obligations as a citizen of the United States. Another segment contended his actions exposed an illegal program that violated the privacy rights of millions of Americans and viewed him as a heroic whistleblower. Regardless of perspective, though, both sides agreed on one point: individuals have an obligation as citizens.

The same principle holds for Christians. The apostle Paul tells us “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). We belong to the kingdom of God and our heavenly citizenship ought to inform and influence our priorities, interests, and decisions.

In a similar vein the apostle Peter refers to believers as “sojourners and pilgrims” (2 Peter 2:11, NKJV). This world represents a temporary destination – a nanosecond relative to eternity. Consequently, we ought to avoid establishing a lifestyle commensurate with the citizens of this world – who chase after the temporal to the detriment of the spiritual.

Paul’s words are instructive on this point, informing us, “we are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20, NKJV). Webster’s dictionary defines an ambassador as an ‘official envoy’ who acts as a ‘resident representative of his sovereign state.’

Jesus appoints each of us to represent Him in this world. As His official emissaries we speak on His behalf – in our speech and with our actions. The world understands the character, attributes, and priorities of the Lord as they interact with and observe us. Rather than read the Bible to ascertain who Jesus is, they simply watch His followers.

So what does the world learn about Jesus when they examine your life? Do they learn He is merciful and forgiving; that He comforts the downtrodden? Do they discover He is holy and righteous, and focuses on the heart and not on outward appearances? Do they learn that He cares deeply for people, not things? As God’s ambassador do your actions reveal unbridled excitement about a future heavenly home or a passion for securing the approval, treasures, and success of this world?

Spend some time reflecting on these questions and evaluating whether your life accurately represents the one you serve as ambassador. Then identify one lifestyle change you can make that will more effectively point people to Christ.

God’s Ways vs. Our Ways.

As Jesus’ ministry neared its end Scripture tells us “He began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again on the third day” (Matthew 16:21, NKJV).

It is a shocking revelation to those who have followed Him since the beginning of His ministry. They expect Jesus to establish His kingdom on earth soon, not die and disappear into the clouds. His pronouncement is inconsistent with everything they believe about Him. In fact, Peter had just identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Surely a glorious and powerful empire is more appropriate for God’s Son than a brutal and horrifying death – honor and authority more fitting than indignity and weakness.

Peter is certain Jesus is disoriented; that He has experienced a moment of confusion, and has misspoken. He decides to set Him straight and remind Him that His destiny lies in greatness not brokenness, in splendor not infamy. So Peter pulls him aside. Steeped in confidence from Jesus’ recent praise, Peter rebukes the Lord saying, “Far be it from you, Lord; this will never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22 NKJV).

Imagine Peter’s surprise when Jesus chastises him. “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23, NKJV). The reprimand catches the attention of the disciples. For the first time they understand that God’s plan for Jesus is remarkably different than their expectations. He is going to die an ignoble death, not lead a revolution.

Perhaps even more unsettling is what it means for them. They must wrestle with the reality that God’s plan for them is also remarkably different than their expectations. Jesus will not install them as leaders of His kingdom in the immediate future. Instead their commitment to Him will have perilous consequences.

To their credit they do not abandon the Lord at that moment, though they understand that Jesus’ life and death serve as a model for them, and now realize they too must surrender their lives to God – and that doing so changes everything.

I wonder how many of us are like Peter? We are certain our ambitions represent God’s will. And if the Lord disagrees then we need only correct Him. How many of us, like Peter, are mindful of the things of men but not of God; are mindful of the things of this world but not of the world to come?

As you contemplate God’s plan for your life and the possibility that it may diverge dramatically from your own plans, consider this verse from Isaiah. “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8, NIV).

How do you adopt the Lord’s thoughts as you own? By studying His word and watching how Christ interacted with those around Him. Notice who he invests His life in and how He serves them. Listen to what He teaches and the priorities He exemplifies. As you read Scripture ask God to reveal His ways to you through the lifestyle model Jesus provides. It is only as we become more like Christ that our thoughts and ways mirror God’s.

Considering Christ? Count the Cost First.

One of the great tragedies of modern Christianity is our failure to explain to the spiritually lost what coming to Christ entails. Perhaps spurred by an eagerness to see our friends and loved ones join the family of faith we often neglect to share Jesus’ expectations for those who choose to embrace him as Savior. Instead we tend to emphasize the benefits of calling Christ Lord and ignore the considerable cost of doing so.

That silence, however, does a great disservice to those considering Christ. Not only does it appeal to a potential believer’s self-interest – the ultimate foundation of sand that will eventually collapse – it contradicts Jesus’ specific teaching. He told a large crowd that followed him, “If you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. But don’t begin until you count the cost” (Luke 14:27-28a, NLT).

That must have seemed an odd instruction to those in the crowd (even as it does to us). So Jesus explained his rationale by comparing the journey of faith to a contractor who calculates the full cost of building a structure before he begins construction. “Otherwise,” Jesus says, “he might complete only the foundation before running out of money.”

His point? Those who fail to understand the cost of coming to Christ risk abandoning their faith when persecution arises or God tests them. And they’re much less likely to persevere when circumstances grow difficult. So while countless benefits accrue to those who surrender their lives to Christ, that path involves many challenges as well. Jesus even told his disciples, “difficult is the path that leads to life and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

Few find it because it is not the well-trod path. It is the difficult path because committing ourselves to Christ costs everything. That may surprise those who have bought into the disastrous and deadly lie that Christ makes no demands of his disciples. But Jesus paints a very different reality to that crowd of potential followers, as He tells them, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33, NLT). To avoid any confusion Jesus’ states his expectation in remarkably clear and unambiguous language.

Some readers will bristle at that verse. They will insist that Jesus does not require His disciples to forsake anything, let alone everything. They will perform all manner of linguistic gymnastics to explain away Jesus’ plain meaning. Such people refuse to count the cost. They count only the blessings; and in the process pursue the broad path of destruction rather than the narrow path of eternal life.

I encourage those considering Christ to count the cost first. Not to discourage you from embracing Jesus as Lord but so you enter into that relationship with your eyes wide open. He does indeed offer a multitude of promises and blessings to those who surrender their lives to Him, both in this world and in the one to come. But that commitment sends you down a difficult path and imposes a steep cost. If it didn’t, Jesus would not have said as much – and He would not have advised us to count the cost.

Feasting at the Faith Buffet.

Recently I ate at a restaurant that offered a lunch buffet. Buffets appeal to many of us for two reasons. First, we choose only the food that interests us. We’re under no obligation to eat vegetables, quiche, fruit salad or anything dainty unless it interests us. And second, we’re allowed to eat as much as we want of anything that makes our mouths salivate – no need for moderation or restraint. In other words, nothing makes it onto the plate unless you like it; and if you do, then pile it on.

Many of us adopt a similar approach with the Christian faith, treating it as a spiritual buffet. We select Scripture and principles that appeal to us, and ignore those with which we disagree. Unfortunately, by establishing a faith foundation imbedded in only those biblical truths we find palatable and ignoring any we find difficult to digest, we create a personalized faith that often bears little resemblance to what Christ taught and God’s Word reveals.

Does God’s mercy interest you? Then add a helping to your faith. Yearn for Jesus’ forgiveness? Then incorporate that into your beliefs. Care for God to bless you? Take a double portion. Desire God’s love? Feast on as much as you need, since it never ends.

Incessant demand exists for this side of the faith buffet, which includes God’s grace, hope, joy, peace, and strength. No surprise we emphasize those elements of the Christian faith since they comfort, console, and even encourage us. And because each represents a gift from God, we can embrace them with confidence, knowing they represent God’s promise to every believer. For that we can be grateful.

Too often, however, our faith begins and ends with such gifts. Our spiritual palates never develop and we never dine on the other side of the faith buffet. We remain content feasting on spiritual benefits, ensconced in a view that implies the Christian faith is all about us. Meanwhile, we tend to ignore Scripture when it contradicts our plans, inconveniences us, or disrupts our lives. As a result, we frequently fail to integrate into our faith truths from the accountability and responsibility side of the spiritual buffet. In particular, Jesus’ instruction on discipleship often falls on deaf ears.

Let’s briefly examine one remarkably relevant passage in Scripture.

Jesus told His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’” (Matthew 16:24-25, NKJV).

In that brief passage Jesus provides a succinct definition of discipleship and reveals several important truths. It behooves us to study and unpack this powerful and compelling message, which not only aligns with what Christ consistently taught throughout His ministry but also challenges us to reconsider our understanding of what it means to follow Christ.

Many of us find Jesus’ words alarming. We want to embrace Jesus enough to secure salvation but have little interest in denying ourselves. And we certainly have no desire to lose our lives, substantively or metaphorically. So how could Jesus be so callous as to make such severe demands of us? How could He imply we are to set aside our agenda and adopt His in its place?

The passage is so unsettling that many of us choose to ignore it, explain it away (Jesus could not have possibly meant what His plain language suggests), dismiss it as legalistic (hey, we’re no longer under the law), or decide that Jesus’ counsel simply represents a recommendation not a command (therefore we are free to accept or reject it as the Spirit leads).

In the process, we redefine what it means to follow Jesus. We decide that embracing Christ involves little sacrifice, service, or surrender because those behaviors afflict our souls and sour our disposition. And since Jesus wants us filled to the full with His joy, He can’t possibly want us to pursue a lifestyle that leaves us miserable (you might be surprised how many churchgoers make that argument).

And yet, His words appear straightforward and his message unambiguous: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

I encourage you not to ignore, dismiss, or compromise those words. To do so is to place your faith in peril. Instead, take time over the next couple days to meditate on the passage and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance as you consider the following questions:

  1. How is God calling you to deny yourself as His disciple?
  2. In what ways does He want you to lose your life for His sake?
  3. Are there areas in your life you have prioritized over your relationship with Jesus – and in effect exchanged your soul for?

As God begins to reveal the application of those verses for your life, you may find yourself heading in a decidedly different direction and experiencing a whole new level of trust and faith in the Lord. I can’t imagine anything more exciting.

The Call of Christ.

In reading the gospel accounts of Christ’s life and ministry, have you ever noticed how often Jesus declares that those who follow Him will face challenges, trials, and difficulty? He succinctly summarized this truth during His sermon on the mount, proclaiming: “Difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14, NKJV). It is interesting to note that Jesus links the difficulty of discipleship with the scarcity of those who find salvation. Since most people reject the former (discipleship), they never truly embrace the latter (salvation).

Of course, Jesus is not suggesting works play a role in our salvation – that is entirely a product of God’s grace and mercy. What He is saying, and makes clear over and over again throughout His ministry, is that anyone who genuinely embraces Him as Lord and Savior will necessarily follow Him as a disciple. You cannot have salvation in the absence of discipleship. To confess Him as Savior is to pursue Him as Lord.

The manifestation of that pursuit, however, will be as diverse as the entire body of believers. Nevertheless, despite that variation, some commonalities exist in every model of discipleship. A few are revealed in three brief encounters Jesus had with a trio of would-be disciples. Luke describes it like this:

As they were walking along, someone said to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ But Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ He said to another person, ‘Come, follow me.’ The man agreed, but said, ‘Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead! Your duty is to go and preach the Kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Anyone who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God’” (Luke 9:57-62, NLT).

We learn several important insights about discipleship in these encounters. First, it requires sacrifice. We must put to death our own agenda and replace it with God’s. This is an unpopular view with many Christians because it inconveniences us and disrupts the lifestyle we want to live. We would prefer Jesus simply adopt our agenda as His and pepper His blessing on our plans.

But Jesus leaves no room for ambiguity as to what He expects of those who want eternal life. We are to lay our lives down for Him just as He laid down His life for us. As He told His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let Him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25, NKJV).

The linkage between discipleship and denying ourselves could not be clearer. We must die (to self) before we can live (for Him). Sadly, this is one of the most ignored truths in many churches today. It is also one of the most resisted truths by those who profess Jesus as Lord, because our sin nature refuses to abdicate its place on the throne of our heart. It readily allows us to proclaim with our mouths that Jesus is Lord as long as that proclamation does not translate into our abdicating full control of our plans, decisions, and lives to Him. But once our faith in Jesus begins to inconvenience, discomfort, or disrupt our lives, our flesh (sin-nature) adopts a posture of virulent resistance, knowing its very survival is at stake. It will inform us how unreasonable, extreme, and ridiculous it is to follow Jesus when such obedience infringes on our desires and dreams.

That’s why Jesus’ encounter with the three would-be disciples is so instructive. It demonstrates in no uncertain terms that following Jesus often requires we live in a manner that flies in the face of social convention. Society places expectations on people, as does the church, and too often we allow those standards to dictate the degree to which we follow and obey Jesus. But in the passage above Jesus makes clear that obeying Him sometimes require we ignore the demands of society (and even the church). When facing such situations we must remain faithful to God and not the voices around us.

Additionally, there will be instances when family and friends make demands of us that seem sensible but contravene the timing, decision, or action God has communicated to us. In Luke’s passage above the third would-be disciple wanted to say goodbye to his family before following Christ. Jesus’ response seems severe. We wonder, ‘why can’t the young man take a day or two to bid his family farewell before embarking on his journey with Christ?’ It makes no sense, we tell ourselves. Surely Jesus does not intend for us to make similar choices in our lives. Surely faith does not require such irrational acts of obedience.

And yet, it does. Jesus interaction with each of the three potential disciples makes clear that the call of Christ supplants the desires of the flesh, however reasonable. Discipleship requires we prioritize obedience to Jesus above the seemingly sensible requests of friends and family. Though the path Christ calls us to pursue will vary by individual, each path will involve an element of sacrifice and denial of self. When the Lord leads us down one fraught with difficulty and inconvenience, we must resist the temptation to yield to moderation, social convention, worldly logic, and the demands of loves ones. It is the least we can do for the Savior who sacrificed so much for us.

The Church’s Most Dangerous Doctrine.

If one of the Church’s primary purposes is to fulfill God’s plan by leading a fallen world into right relationship with Him, then any doctrine that undermines that objective poses a danger to not only the Church’s mission but also to the world that so desperately needs God’s love. And while any Church teaching that contravenes Scripture is both deceitful and heresy, the most dangerous are those that send adherents down a path that leads to eternal suffering and separation from God.

Applying that standard, the most dangerous doctrine taught by many churches is that of ‘Easy Believism’. It offers all the benefits of salvation without requiring any of the costs of discipleship, asserting that eternal salvation is available to anyone who recites a handful of words proclaiming Jesus as Lord and imploring God’s forgiveness. Especially popular in evangelical churches and referred to as ‘The Sinner’s Prayer’ in other circles, this teaching insists that when individuals make a verbal profession of faith they immediately guarantee their place in heaven and nothing can ever compromise that eternal destination.

While that teaching enjoys broad appeal and a significant following among those who claim Christianity as their religion, it has no foundation in Scripture. On the contrary, it disregards the explicit truths Jesus frequently proclaimed about eternal life. Whereas Jesus taught that the path leading to eternal life is difficult (see Matthew 7:14), that only those who persevere enjoy salvation (Matthew 24:13), and that following Him has a considerable cost (Luke 9:57-62), ‘Easy Believism’ teaches the exact opposite. It insists that embracing Jesus as Lord need not disrupt our lives, does not demand we endure, and imposes no cost.

Before going any further, we ought to examine closely what Jesus taught about eternal life and His expectations for those who proclaim Him Lord. After all, as the Son of God and the Savior of the world, His word is final on the matter. What we learn from careful study is that Jesus often described faith in terms of discipleship (following Him) and was unequivocal as to what that involved.

To His disciples and a crowd of potential followers, Jesus said: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34b, NKJV). To follow Christ is to deny ourselves. We set aside our hopes, plans, interests, and goals, and replace them with Jesus’. That may sound extreme, as if Christ were calling us to give up our very lives for Him. And in fact He is. In the very next verse Jesus says as much. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35, NKJV).

While losing our life for Jesus does not necessarily mean physically dying for Him (though sometimes it might), it does mean putting to death ‘self’ and all it represents: our greed, arrogance, selfishness, debauchery, materialism, and idolatry. That expectation causes many would-be followers to bristle. They want to proclaim Jesus their Lord but retain the rights to their lives, careers, pursuits, passions, and resources. In other words, they want to limit Jesus’ lordship to a verbal profession rather than make it a substantive, exhaustive, and ongoing commitment.

Jesus anticipated many of us trying to have it both ways – wanting to declare Him Lord without actually evidencing it in our decisions, our priorities, our time, our relationships, and our lives. That is why He advises potential followers to count the cost first (see Luke 14:25-32), because the cost of discipleship is high and ought not be entered into lightly or without knowledge of His expectations. He summarizes those expectations in very succinct and unambiguous terms: “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33, NKJV).

Forsaking all sounds comprehensive because it is. Like all of Jesus’ teachings about discipleship it requires sacrifice, which Jesus modeled for us in His life and in His death. Sacrifice was why the widow’s tiny tithe was heralded as the most generous – because she gave all. Similarly, the merchant in Jesus’ parable about the kingdom of heaven gave all to secure the pearl of great price (see Matthew 13:45).

Genuine faith compels us to put God first and adopt His agenda as our own, not carve out and dedicate parts of our lives for His use and glory while retaining other parts for ourselves. Jesus addressed that duplicitous approach to faith and warned that those who embrace it have no faith at all. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches” (Matthew 6:24, NKJV). Nor can you serve ‘self’ and Christ. All who try reveal that their true loyalty lies with the flesh and with the world.

‘Easy Believism’ also damages the souls of men and women by suggesting that no ongoing faithfulness to Jesus is required for salvation – that He does not demand we endure to the end. That could not be further from the truth.

When Jesus sent the twelve out He warned them of the trials and challenges they would face, explaining that they would be hated and persecuted for His sake. As an encouragement He reminded them: “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22b, NKJV). Years later, as he described the end times, he repeated these words to His disciples (see Matthew 24:13). In addition, He gave that message to each of the seven churches He counseled in Revelation – those who endure and overcome will eat from the tree of life and not be hurt by the second death.

The parable of the sower communicated a similar message (see Mark 4:13-20). Of those who hear the good news about Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice, few receive it and then bear fruit for the kingdom of God. Most wither in their faith and do not endure. They are unfruitful. That may seem an insignificant detail except that Jesus later tells us that everyone who abides in Him bears much fruit and those who do not bear fruit are not His and are cast out and burned in the fire (see John 15:1-6).

Despite the clarity of Jesus’ teachings about faith and His expectations for those who would call Him Lord (and there are many more Bible passages that reinforce the verses above), many refuse to accept His truths. They insist that the call of Christ imposes no demands on them, does not require they remain faithful, and that they can decide what areas to consecrate to Him and which ones they can keep for themselves.

Sadly, many pastors, deacons, and church leaders reject Jesus’ message for fear it will chase people from their congregations and result in people forsaking their faith. What they fail to understand, though, is that those who practice ‘Easy Believism’ have no genuine faith to forsake – they follow a faux-faith created out of whole cloth by spiritual wolves. Churches teaching that salvation and discipleship are unrelated are leading parishioners astray because Jesus never made such a distinction. For Him, discipleship and salvation were intrinsically linked.

Why, then, do millions of people fall for such deceit? Why do so many discard the clear word of God and embrace a false gospel instead? Because ‘Easy Believism’ tickles our ears and tells us what we want to hear. It appeals to our flesh, which refuses to be inconvenienced or removed from its throne in our hearts. We want it to be true and refuse to study Scripture to learn if it actually is.

Do you desire to make Jesus your Lord and receive His forgiveness? If so, search the Scriptures to understand what He expects of you as His disciple. Start with the verses above and then read through each of the four gospel accounts found in the New Testament. You may find that what Jesus taught about faith, discipleship, and eternal life is different than what your pastor, priest, or shepherd teaches. And eternity is too long, heaven too exciting, and Jesus’ presence too awe-inspiring for you to leave your faith in the hands of someone who may be more motivated by church attendance and donations than your eternal soul.

Make it a priority this week to get right with God, commit your life fully to Him, and begin building that intimate relationship with Jesus that costs everything but yields an eternity of joy, peace, and love with the Maker of heaven and earth.