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  • Writer's pictureAdelee Russell

Finding Our Way Back to the Fervent Life

You were on fire for God. His presence was so real. You walked in truth. You experienced His joy. You had clarity. You felt strong. And then… you didn’t.

Fear… apathy… emptiness… lostness. Silence louder than you feel your soul can take. Your fire has dwindled to embers. You feel confused, exhausted, and alone. You know what the fervent life is. You used to walk in it. It was the most beautiful season of your life. But you can barely remember what it felt like now. It seems so far away. And you have no idea how it slipped from your grasp. I get it. I’ve been there. One of the most frustrating things about being human is the reality that we’re imperfect. We’re weak. We forget. We get off track. We misunderstand. We get overwhelmed. We get lost. There’s a church in the Bible that knew what it felt like to lose their grip on the fervent life they had in Christ. They knew what it was like to get lost. In Revelation 2:2-4 the Lord says to the Ephesians: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (ESV). They were doing good things. They were working hard. They were patient. They loved justice. They discerned truth. They endured. But they lost sight of their first love. The list of things the Ephesian church was doing scares me a bit. Because I realize it would be so easy for me to get lost and I might not even realize it at first. We can be doing all the right things, all the while our love for God can be shriveling up and dying. We can help people. We can give money. We can exhaust ourselves for the sake of others. We can have a passion for justice. We can discern truths about doctrine and theology. We can endure the most bitter of circumstances. We can do all of these things, and still lose sight of our First Love. What are some things that can cause us to lose sight of our First Love? Four things come to mind. 1). Idols. Another term I’ve heard for this is “disordered loves.” An idol essentially is anything we have come to love and care about more than God. The tricky part is, a thing does not have to be bad in order for it to become an idol. We can take good and beautiful things—gifts given by God Himself—and allow them to usurp God’s place in our hearts. It can be subtle. Which is why 1 John 5:21 urges us to be aware when it says, “Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts” (NLT). How can we identify an idol in our lives? That’s a great question. And I’m sure there are many answers. There are four questions I ask myself that help me discern the idols in my life:

a) What’s consuming my time? Whether it’s people pleasing (i.e. saying yes to every commitment out of fear or compulsion), or a hobby I become obsessed with, or a goal I esteem higher than every other area of my life; if my marriage, my godly friendships, and my relationship with God is suffering, then it’s possible that I’m clinging to an idol.

b). What’s consuming my thoughts? Much like my time, is my mental energy being sucked away by hobbies, or goals, or people’s opinions of me? Am I so enamored with someone or something that I find it hard to concentrate on the relationships God’s called me to or the time I spend with Him?

c). Am I afraid to get counsel from others in this area? Are there areas of my life I gloss over or try to hide when I’m with other people? If I’m unwilling to seek counsel from other trusted believers about it there’s a good chance it’s either something sinful that’s become a vice, or something I love so much I’m unwilling to remove or alter its presence in my life.

d). What emotions does the thought of losing this stir up in me? Think about that thing that’s consumed so much of your time and thoughts. Now think about how you would feel if you lost it. More importantly, how you would feel towards God if you lost it? Would you be angry? Would you be bitter? Would you doubt His character and His goodness? Once upon a time I had an idol in my life. A person. A guy. I was in my early twenties. And when the thought came that my future with him might not happen I quickly dismissed it. I literally said “God would not do that to me.” It was an idol that had sunk its hooks so deep into my heart I could not even bear the thought of it being taken away. And guess what? God did take it away. And it was the absolute best thing He, as my loving Heavenly Father, could have done for me.

2). Bitterness. Hebrews 12:14-15 says, “Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many” (ESV). Bitterness has many casualties. It can stir up trouble in an entire community and it can keep us from living a fervent life for Christ. Unresolved hurts lead to bitterness. And it can sting like nothing else. Sometimes the emotions are so strong they steal my breath away. Bitterness is a subtle disease. And it can kill your fervent love-fueled passion for God.

3). Perfectionism. I struggle with this one. A LOT. Years ago I used to be a long distance runner. I ran half marathons. Eventually I joined a running group. When I first joined, my fellow athletes called me a “zen runner.” Meaning I didn’t have any tech tracking my progress. I didn’t have a Garmin (think: an early prototype of the Apple watch. Equipped with GPS, and all kinds of stats from heart-beat, to pace, to calories burned).

I didn’t keep track of my miles. I just ran. For the sheer joy of running with God. It was my special time with Him. I’d worship, I’d talk to Him about everything that was going on, and—my favorite part—I’d experience His joy. I’d experience His peace. I’d experience His presence while I ran.

It didn’t take long for me to get caught up in the hype. I bought the Garmin. I tracked my stats. And gradually, my love for running died. Oh I was still passionate about it. But my passion was more like an obsession than a joy-filled love.

I wasn’t running for God anymore. I was running for myself. I was running to prove myself. There’s probably lots of runners out there who can handle the pressure of the stats and not get caught up in it. But I couldn’t. I had a sensitive wound lingering beneath the surface. I had a stronghold of perfectionism that was waiting to take control. And I lost the love.

Running for perfection instead of love corrupted my practice habits and left me with a stress fracture, a torn ligament, and half the amount of cartilage in my knees. Eventually it took me out of the running altogether. Perfectionism kills love. And it can kill our fervent life for Christ.

4). Weariness. We all know that sleep deprivation can severely affect our health. Likewise, fatigue can severely affect our spiritual life. I was doing really well living the fervent life. But then I got weary. And with weariness comes a boat load of emotions and the inability to see straight. Like exhaustion weakens our immune system, it can also weaken our spiritual defenses. Before we know it we’ve been carried off by the waves of our circumstances. Finding Our Way Back So how do we find our way back to the fervent life? How do we find our way back to our first love? Verse five of Revelation chapter two—the follow up to our earlier passage—says, “Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first” (NLT). Our first instruction is to look at how far we’ve drifted. The good news is there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1), so we can take an honest look at where we’ve gone wrong without wallowing in shame and guilt. We’re free to get back up. We’re free to learn. We're free to ask ourselves without the weight of condemnation: Have we been consumed lately by other things instead of God? Do we feel bitter and angry a lot? Are we trying to do things by our own strength; are we trying to prove ourselves? Are we weary? Has exhaustion and fatigue caused us to become carried away by our circumstances? The next step is to turn back to God. We’ve acknowledged our shortcomings and we’ve placed our gaze back on Christ. Now what? “do the works you did at first?” What kind of works? We saw earlier that the church in Ephesus was doing a lot of good things. But what was missing? Their love for God. So one can assume that when verse five tells us to do the works we did at first, it means to do them out of love like we did before. It could also mean to do the things we used to do to cultivate that love. I used to tell myself the truth a lot more and listen to lies a lot less. I used to let my faith dictate my feelings, instead of letting my feelings dictate my faith. I used to recognize God’s love in a way that helped me love others more. I used to rest in the Gospel of God’s grace instead of trying to prove my own worth. I used to accept God’s invitation to rest, and spent long hours in the beauty of His presence, instead of running around in an endless cycle of striving and exhaustion. What Fuels the Fervent Life Ultimately there is one thing and one thing alone that fuels our fervent life, and that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. My eyes used to gloss over every time someone mentioned the Gospel. Because I’d heard it SO. MANY. TIMES. But then God opened my eyes in a way that made me see it like I never had before. He showed me how the Gospel affects every single area of my life. It is the key to victory in every area of my life. Each day comes with a beautiful purpose: to grow closer to God, to learn more and more about His love for me through the Gospel, and to let it transform me. The Gospel is the key to everything. The Gospel helps us give up our idols. Isaiah 30:18-22 says, “So the LORD must wait for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion. For the LORD is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for his help. Then you will destroy all your silver idols and your precious gold images. You will throw them out like filthy rags, saying to them, 'Good riddance!'” (NLT).

Once our hearts are opened again to the magnitude of God’s love and compassion for us through the grace given to us at the cross (the redeeming work of the Messiah even the believers in the Old Testament were placing their trust in), the idols in our hands suddenly pale in comparison. To the point that we’re willing to give them up because the momentary satisfaction we get from them is nothing compared to the satisfaction and fulfillment we receive in the love of Christ. The Gospel is the antidote to bitterness. Genesis 50:20 says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people” (NLT). Joseph was able to say this to his brothers—the ones who had hurt him so deeply and sold him into slavery—because although God allowed them to sin against him, God only allowed it because He had a far greater plan in mind. One that would both glorify Him AND bring Joseph to a place of great abundance in the end. I love Genesis 41:50-52 where it says, “During this time, before the first of the famine years, two sons were born to Joseph and his wife, Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On. Joseph named his older son Manasseh, for he said, ‘God has made me forget all my troubles and everyone in my father’s family.’ Joseph named his second son Ephraim, for he said, ‘God has made me fruitful in this land of my grief’ (NLT). I absolutely love the story of Joseph because it illustrates the cycle of healing. First we know that God was with him, sustaining him even when he was abused by his brothers and wrongfully imprisoned. We see how God brought him out of prison at the perfect time to become a trusted advisor to Pharaoh, and second in command over all of Egypt. We see how God wiped away Joseph’s tears and brought him to a place of great abundance and blessing.

The blessings God gave him were so great that it caused Joseph to forget all the sorrows of his past. Then we see emotions surface again when his brothers come back into the picture to the point that Joseph has to turn away and leave the room. He sobs. He wrestles. And then—because of the healing power of God’s steadfast love and provision--we see Joseph reach the point where he can forgive and offer reconciliation to his brothers after they express their remorse and ask for his forgiveness. At the end of the day Joseph's view of God and all He had done for him caused what Joseph's brothers had done to him to become insignificant. Not that it no longer mattered, but that it no longer held power over him. Because of Christ we are promised victory over anything this life throws at us. We are no longer victims of our circumstances. Because of Christ we can rise above. Also because of Christ, we are not alone in our suffering. On the contrary, we have a Savior who understands our weaknesses, our struggles, and our pain. We are not alone in our grief. Christ Himself chose to become "a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief" (Isaiah 53:3 NLT) so that we would not feel alone in ours. Because of the fellowship we have with Jesus Christ we can find comfort, and healing, and restoration, and victory. God’s steadfast love through the Gospel can heal a broken, hurting soul. It can restore. It can remove bitterness from our lives and bring us forgiveness and joy. The Gospel diffuses our perfectionism. We are not enough. And God loved us anyway. When we were at our worst He offered us salvation through the sacrifice of His Son. And when we mess up His mercies continue to be new every morning. The Gospel of God’s grace is the only thing that has the power to diffuse our perfectionism. The more I focus on God’s incredible relentless love for me, the less control my perfectionism has over me. The more I saturate myself in His loving presence the less I strive. The Gospel restores our weary souls. Isaiah 30:15 says, “This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it.” Psalm 23:2-3 also says, “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul…” (ESV). In Isaiah thirty we see the necessity of resting in God. In Psalm twenty-three we see God prepare a place of rest for the Psalmist, and the Psalmist surrenders to it. Consequently, by accepting God’s invitation of rest, his soul is restored. Just like our physical body cannot function properly without sleep, our spiritual life cannot function properly without resting in God. In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus said, "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light" (NLT). Why is Jesus' yoke for us light and easy to bear? Because He already accomplished everything for us on the cross, and all we're left with is the charge to depend on Him and rest in His finished work for us on the cross. Because of Jesus we have a relationship with God where we can accept the places of rest He prepares for us. Because of Jesus our hearts can be refreshed and restored continually as we walk with Him. The Way Back When we boil it down, the way back to the fervent life is actually really simple: To renew our minds with a fresh grasp of the Gospel, and to delve deeper into the love of God through Christ. Paul tells us in Ephesians 3:16-19 "I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God's love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God's people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God" (NLT). Strength. Completeness. Fullness of life. Power to overcome.

Unfathomable love. Sounds like a pretty fervent life doesn't it? And how do we experience it? By relying on the power of the Holy Spirit; by letting Christ make his home in our hearts, and by rooting ourselves in the foundation of God's incomprehensible love for us revealed through the Gospel--the pinnacle revelation of God's love for all mankind, and the source of hope for all who are willing to receive it.

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