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OUR HEART AND GOD
(On Elizabeth M. Hoekstra's devotional A Heart After God: Loving Him with Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength. Bethany House Publishers, Bloomington, MN. 2002.)
1. THE FUNCTION OF DEVOTIONAL LITERATURE
Devotional literature plays a very crucial role in the lives of many Christians. Sometimes, families and individuals, (unfortunately, I should say) depend more on the devotional literature for their daily spiritual life than on the Bible itself. Devotional books bring the experience, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom of anointed writers and servants of God to the individuals, explains the transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit, and exhorts them to live a life faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. THE STRUCTURE OF DEVOTIONAL LITERATURE
These writings are generally based on the interpretations of selected Bible verses, Bible characters, and events narrated in the Word of God. We are led to associate ourselves with the experience, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom of the writers and to seek a generalization and application for our own life at hand from what we read in the devotional literature. Formal arrangements such as a cycle of readings every day and a course of meditation and prayer focused on the topic discussed in the portion for the day often mark the devotional literature. Millions have been blessed by such devotional literature throughout history. However, only some of this devotional literature has survived the time as a live-force.
An important aspect of devotional literature is that the devoted author often writes it just for himself or herself in the sense that, compelled by the strength of their spiritual experience, the authors use this form of literature to express themselves. Creative writing, including the writing of devotional literature, has a primary function of enabling the author to express himself or herself.
3. DEVOTION IN RELATION TO WILL OF GOD AND WILL OF MAN
Devotional literature must help a reader to devote himself or herself entirely to the Lord Jesus Christ. The will of the reader is so influenced by the devotional literature that the reader begins to dedicate his daily life to the Lord Jesus Christ. It fosters a deliberate movement towards God. The Will of God takes over his own will in the process. The spirit of the world influences the ordinary man; the devoted man dedicates himself to the will of God. This comes about because of an ardent submission to God. The will of man is hard to bend to begin with, but through the process of reading and applying the devotional literature to one's life, the will of man finally comes to rely on the will of God. It is the ardent submission and ardent attachment to God that marks the devotee as distinct from an ordinary propitiator or worshipper who makes supplications for material benefits through various processes including prayer. Devotion leads to an unsatiated desire to have communion with God. More often than not, most of us may not seek or desire such a communion. We simply want to live a life devoted to the Lord and yet be part of this world. There is nothing wrong with this, I believe. Extraordinary experience of communion with God, however, is possible, even if it is not the goal of an ordinary ardent devotee. But what is most important is that our submission to the will of the Lord lead to a concrete living of His will in the community of the believes and be a lamp upon the hill for the whole world to follow.
4. CONSTITUENTS OF DEVOTION
Devotion, which begins with the acceptance of the holiness of God, includes prayer and praise. Prayer and praise go hand in hand, one flowing from the other. Prayer seeks grace, and praise recognizes the giving of the grace. Together they help the growth and strengthening of devotion in the individual.
The devotee's adoration of God is revealed in his words of gratitude and thanksgiving addressed to God, and demonstrated in his ethical and moral acts towards others. After all, our God is the God of moral and ethical excellence. The best form of adoration of Him is not any ritual (as found in so many religions), but actually living a moral and ethical life.
Prayer, praise, and adoration give enough room for meditation. Meditation includes recollection, or remembrance of the acts of God throughout history and especially in the individual's life. Silent soliloquy is an essential part of meditation. Silent conversation or dialogue with God is another essential part. Interiorization of God's presence is the result. Devotional literature has the major function of enabling the individuals and the family members to interiorize the presence of God in their lives.
The problem one often faces is how to focus fully on God in such moments of meditation. Many recommend total silence and total inaction as a higher level of experience. As an ordinary man, I have great difficulty in adopting this as a fruitful exercise. Emptiness may be a great ideal in some non-Christian faiths, but I am not so sure that we should seek emptiness. Instead, I've always felt encouraged with silent soliloquies and silent dialogues with God.
I have no eloquent language to pray with. But I simply start talking in whatever colloquial form I can handle with comfort and ease. My Lord knows my deficiencies. Why pretend and strain myself to be a better communicator?
At the same time, it is important for us to deliberately attempt to rid ourselves of any vain thoughts crowding our minds, or worldly emotions occupying our hearts, otherwise our will not be obedient to the will of God.
Devotional literature, when prepared and presented with the anointing of the Holy Spirit, helps us in this process. Devotional literature may emphasize fasting as one of the ways of getting to know and experience God. Spiritual raptures and experiences may be mentioned, but such descriptions and experiences are not generally the dominant features of Christian devotional literature.
5. DEVOTIONAL LITERATURE AS "HOW TO" LITERATURE
"How to" books have become very popular these days. Since interpersonal relationships are a relatively low priority, and since individuals seek to pursue their spiritual life on their own as parallel to the current social mores in western societies, devotional literature is becoming more and more popular among Christians. Anointed servants of God have used this genre of Christian literature effectively to mentor and disciple people in large numbers.
6. THE BASIC PREMISE OF A HEART AFTER GOD
A Heart After God by Elizabeth Hoekstra takes its cue from Psalm 86:11, asking the Lord to give an undivided heart. God told the prophet Jeremiah that He would give His people singleness of heart and action, "so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them" (Jeremiah 32:39). Appropria-
Elizabeth's devotional book starts with the basic premise Jesus Himself offered:
'The most important one,' answered Jesus, 'is this: "hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." '
The purpose of the book is defined thus by the author: "A Heart After God is about wholeheartedly welcoming the Lord at the center of your heart by loving Him with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength." Elizabeth does it by taking "examples of people from Scripture and show(ing) how the godly characters expressed love for the Lord with their heart, soul, mind, and strength."
The book is divided into ten short chapters, and each chapter is further divided into four major sections. Each section focuses on the Bible character's love for God as felt in his or her heart, soul, mind, and full strength.
7. A REVIEW OF THE CONTENTS OF CHAPTERS
Chapter 1 paints a general picture of love, on loving God with everything, and asks us to know God as the lover of the soul. Chapter 2 focuses on a mother's heart, Mary's heart, which loved God when life didn't make sense to her. "Mary wasn't privy to the end of" the story of Jesus. But she loved God with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength. This chapter encourages us to know God as wonderful counselor. Chapter 3 points us towards the scepter of grace, to love God in fear. The Bible says that many lay in sackcloth and ashes, and that when Esther came to know about Mordecai, she was in great distress. She obeyed God's with her life, not fearing her own death. Through the story of Esther, Elizabeth exhorts us to know God as a faithful God.
Chapter 4 deals with the riches of the poor, to love God even when it costs everything. The poor widow portrayed in Mark 12:41-44 talks aloud to us through her simple act of faith in this chapter.
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasure than all the others. They gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything-all she had to live on." (Mark 12:41-44).
The story of Stephen is a stone of faith. In chapter 5, Elizabeth wants us to love God unto death just as the "stones of faith" like Stephen did. To have faith like Stephen is to know God as Almighty God. Elizabeth encourages us to act in ways that would make "our commitment inside to be seen outside."
Elizabeth Hoekstra writes that she once
chose to take the Exodus 21:2-6 verses literally. I wanted there to be an outward sign of my soul belonging to my Lord. My ears had already been pierced once when I was a teenager, but I had each ear pierced a second time. Some could say I had the second holes done in response to a trend. But I know my heart's interest: I wanted my commitment inside to be seen outside. I wanted the second hole to be a sign of obedience and a mark of ownership. Like the Hebrew servants in the Old Testament, I opted for the choice of staying a servant with my Master. I wanted to serve Him for life.
Fortunately, for a believer like me who detests such practices, because I was brought up in a religion in which such practices are ardently followed as a sign of protection from the gods worshiped and for whom such piercing is offered, Elizabeth wants us "to figuratively get our ears pierced for Him, proclaiming undying loyalty to Him as Master." I have no intention of piercing my ears a second time, for I would like my entire being to be a sign of faith in the Lord until my death. If I particularize my faith in one or more symbolic acts, I may end up seeking the symbols rather then the Spirit. Don't we see this happening time and again around us?
The attentive ears of a nation portrayed in Nehemiah become the subject matter of our devotion in chapter 6. Elizabeth raises several questions, "Do we listen attentively when God's Word is in the air? Are our collective hearts, like the restored Israelites, yearning to hear and understand God's Word? Do we have a deep desire to know what God's Word means for us personally and as a united church body (regardless of denomination)?" To listen to God is to love Him in unity. Nehemiah wrote: "Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength" (Nehemiah 8:10).
The Proverbs 31 woman is the focus of our meditation in chapter 7. The woman sees a light in the dark. She loves God with confidence. Elizabeth excels in exhorting women to seek light in the darkness of day-to-day life, and to love God with confidence. This would lead them to know Him as Most High.
Chapter 8 is on the bread of adversity. The ten lepers, all men, who stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" had faith in Jesus and tried to know Him as the Healer. They were all thankful, for Jesus healed them all, but "only one returned with a heart of true gratitude and worship." The story of the leper who returned to show his gratitude and worship is used to illustrate the bread of adversity and the water of affliction (Isaiah 30:20). Elizabeth writes from her own life,
I love hearing other people's testimonies. Yet there were times when I felt a tad jealous of others' profound conversion stories. My testimony sounded trivial by comparison: I was born and raised in a Christian home. I accepted Christ as my Savior at five, committed my life to Him at thirteen, and married a godly man at twenty. Not much excitement there. The more thrilling other people's stories were, the more I thought mine was boring.
But the Lord gave me a taste of the 'bread of adversity.' It was bitter. It was hard to swallow. Once I internalized all the lessons he needed to teach me through that time in my life. I knew I had a story to tell, a message of victory. The adversity was my teacher.
When the Lord gives us adversity, he's proving that He loves us enough to want us to learn something about His character through the hardship. Through adversity is revelation, and in that revelation, strength.
How true and how encouraging and comforting these words are!
To know God as a friend is the subject matter of chapter 9. Martha opened her home to Jesus. The story of Martha and Mary tells us that it is us, and not others, who need greater change of mind. "Change my mind. Change me. Change the way I see things. Change the way I understand things. Show me where I'm wrong. Give me your mind instead." Asking for such a change is to know God as a friend. We love Him in serving, while recognizing that our view alone may not be the only correct view.
Chapter 10, the last chapter of this inspiring devotional, discusses the path of righteousness, to love God without hesitation. Seeking the path of righteousness is to know God as Alpha and Omega. Simon Peter's story of conversion, and Jesus' asking him to feed His sheep is the focus here. "When we accept the free gift of Christ, we can't give God only half of our heart. It's an all or nothing proposition," writes Elizabeth Hoekstra.
8. TO CONCLUDE
Each chapter narrates interesting incidents in the life of Elizabeth and the world she is part of. The Bible characters and the episodes in the Bible that revolve around the characters are seen directly relevant to our own life and to our world and times. The strength of the book lies in the strong personal testimony of the author revealed through her personal experience in her spiritual journey. The Bible incidents and characters provide an exemplary background and leading for us in this devotional book. Her language is easy and very encouraging. The reader is greatly encouraged. The weakness of the book is its overbearing structure or the excessive neatness of pattern.
Good devotional literature must act only as a good beginning for our meditation, not as a substitute for the Word of God. It should gently lead us away from wholly depending upon such help in our journey to knowing God. I believe that despite the explicit and at times tedious structural organization of the book, Elizabeth Hoekstra stirs in us awe for the Lord and encourages us to seek Him steadfastly.
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Elizabeth M. Hoekstra. A Heart After God.
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