For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about our 2012 Discipleship Action Plan. The goal of this plan is to draw our community into life with Christ. That means you, that means me, that means the people in our community that have never darkened the doors of a church – all of us, being drawn deeper into life with Christ. That’s the goal. And our strategy for doing this, in a nutshell, is to build relationships. We’ve repeated this many times that life is all about our relationships. It’s not about our career or the wealth we accumulate or our popularity – it’s about the relationships that we build with God and with each other. And it’s through these relationships that God changes lives.

Last week we looked at the example of the paralyzed man and his four friends. And how God used those four friends to bring about a radical change in that man’s life. God did the changing, but He brought it about through those four friends.

And originally, the plan for today was to look at another example of how God uses people to bring about change in people’s lives – however… This week, God brought about a change in my message. I was going to talk about David’s Mighty Men – a group of 37 men that gathered around the leadership of King David and did mighty and amazing things. But by Wednesday this week, I came to the conclusion that this was not the direction that God wanted me to go with the message, so I had to figure out what the right direction was. So as I was thinking and trying to discern what God wanted me to preach about this morning, I realized that there was a key part of our 2012 Discipleship Action Plan that I had just sorta taken for granted. I just presumed it was in place and so I hadn’t talked much about it.

In fact, if you remember back to January 1st, we started this whole series by looking at what Jesus said was the greatest commandments. It was Mark chapter 12 – verse 29-31.

 29 Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. 30 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ 31 The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31

And because we were launching into our growth groups, we naturally focused on the second part – loving our neighbors as ourselves – Building relationships with the people around us. But I don’t want to neglect the first part. After all, Jesus said the most important commandment is to love God with everything you’ve got. So we’ve kinda gone about this in a backwards fashion, but that’s ok. We’ve talked about loving our neighbors and building relationships with them, but now we want to talk about loving God and building our relationship with Him.

So that’s the direction I want to go this morning. How can we build our relationship with God? Now that might seem like pretty basic Christianity 101, but I think it’s something that all of us struggle with to some extent. I think all of us want to grow deeper in our relationship with God. We want God to be more real in our lives – we don’t just want to know about Him – we want to KNOW Him. We want to be able to say, “Yeah, Jesus is my friend – I talk with Him every day – I love hanging out with him.”

But for many of us, that’s not the case. It’s more like – “I’m down here – and He’s up there. I pray to Him, and I think He hears – but I’m not really sure. I know lots of stuff about Him – but it doesn’t really feel like we’re close friends.” Do any of you guys relate to that?

I think many Christians do. Because after all, our relationship with God is way different than our relationships with anybody else. We can’t physically see him. We can’t hear him with our ears usually. We don’t go out for lunch with Him or watch a hockey game with Him. He doesn’t send us text messages or leave funny comments on our facebook page. So our relationship with God is unlike any other relationship we have, and because of that, it can be difficult to figure out how to cultivate that relationship. So the question I want to try to answer this morning is, How can we build our relationship with God?

This morning I want to base our discussion on the verses in Mark that we’ve already read. I think Mark 12:30 gives us the principles we need to build our relationship with God. So let’s take another look at that verse.

‘And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ Mark 12:30

There are four categories – four parts of our person – that we are to love God with. Our heart – our soul – our mind – and our strength.

Let’s take a look at the first part – our heart. What does it mean to love God with all our heart? Well, to help us understand what exactly “our heart” is, I looked up how the Bible describes our heart in different verses.

  • 5 times =  happy
  • 3 times = heavy
  • 3 times = compassionate
  • 41 times = hard

Now isn’t that interesting – A hard heart. Let’s look at a few of those verses:

“They made their hearts as hard as stone, so they could not hear the instructions or the messages that the LORD of Heaven’s Armies had sent them.” Zachariah 7:12

For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes— so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’ Matthew 13:15

 Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. Ephesians 4:18

So in reading these verses, it really sounds to me like our heart can be described as our attitude towards God. If we have a hard heart, we don’t want to listen to God. We don’t want a relationship with Him. I think sometimes even as Christians we harden our hearts. We resist God. We want to do things our way. But I tell ya, nothing will squash our relationship with God faster than having that hard-hearted attitude. But on the flip side of that, a soft heart is an attitude that wants to hear from God – that wants a relationship with Him. Let me show you one more verse:

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. Ezekiel 36:26

So I think the first principle in building our relationship with God is to have a soft heart – a heart that wants to hear from God – a heart that wants to have a relationship with Him. And the Bible tells us that went we seek after God – we will find Him. King David, when He was passing his throne down to his Son Solomon, He gives him this advice…

And Solomon, my son, learn to know the God of your ancestors intimately. Worship and serve him with your whole heart and a willing mind. For the LORD sees every heart and knows every plan and thought. If you seek him, you will find him. 1 Chronicles 28:9

God isn’t far away. He’s not hard to find. But we have to want to find Him. We have to have a soft heart that is willing to hear from Him.

So the first thing we need to do if we find that we’re struggling with our relationship with God – if God isn’t seeming very real or very close – the first thing we have to do is to check the condition of our hearts. Is your heart hard towards God? Do you really want to hear from Him? Maybe you don’t want to go through the work of getting to know Him? Maybe your afraid of the changes He might ask you to make in your life? Is your heart hard?

So that’s principle #1 – Love the Lord your God with all your heart – a soft hard – that wants to respond to Him.

The second of those four parts of our person is our soul. “Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul.

So what exactly is your soul? Now this is where it gets a little tricky, because heart and soul and mind and strength are all very intertwined with each other. It’s difficult to look at one of them completely separate from the others. In fact, where ever the Bible talks about the soul, about one third of the time it includes mention of the heart too. It talks about the “heart and soul”. They’re a package deal.

But for the sake of our discussion this morning, let me try to define our soul this way.

Look way back in your Bibles to Genesis 1:26.

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”

 27 So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26-27

So drawing from those verses, I think a good definition of our soul is “the part of us that is created in the image of God”. It’s the part of us that makes us different from the animals. It is quite literally, our God-like attributes. Now don’t misunderstand me when I say God-like attributes… We are not little gods – there is still a vast difference between us and God, but He has given us some of his characteristics.

For example, we are made to be eternal like Him. Our current bodies will one day die, but our souls will continue to exist. In fact, one thing we look forward to as Christians is the new eternal bodies that we’ll get for our souls when Christ returns.

That’s just one example of our God-like characteristics. But the one I want to focus on for our purposes this morning is our consciousness. Let me see if I can explain what I mean. I’m not a deep theologian or a psychologist, or a biologist or any of those other -ologist, so my explanation might be a little rough – But hopefully, it’ll be sufficient.

I want us to do a little experiment. I want you to think a thought in your head. Say something in your mind – not out loud – just say it in your mind.

Those words that you just spoke in your mind – that’s your consciousness – that’s (if I may) that’s your soul speaking. Some of your souls probably said “Well, this is dumb – I’m not going to do this.” Well by thinking that, you just did. Your soul expressed itself by thinking that thought. This ability to think thoughts like this is one of our God-like attributes.

You see plants and animals don’t think thoughts like we do. Our kids have a movie called “Cloudy with a chance of meatballs” and the main character is an inventor.  And so one of the things He invents is a monkey thought translator. You put this thing on the monkey’s head and it tells you what the monkey is thinking. But in the movie, when the inventor puts the monkey thought translator on his pet monkey named Steve – the only thoughts He gets out of the monkey is “Hungry Hungry Hungry Hungry!” Its not exactly deep, profound thought, is it? It’s more instinct than conscious thought, because conscious thought comes from having a soul.

And what’s interesting is that our soul is constantly expressing itself. If you pay attention throughout your day, you’ll find that you’re always thinking thoughts. Sometimes they come out in words that you speak, but most often they remain in your mind. Thoughts run through your head all day long. That’s your soul.

And right now, I’m guessing your soul is either saying “This guy is crazy” or “Where’s he going with this?”

Let me tell you. If we are supposed to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul…. what does you suppose that means? Well, I think part of it means to love the Lord our God with all our thoughts. Well, how do you love God with all your thoughts?

I think Paul gives us the key in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. It simply says this:

“Never stop praying.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17 NLT

“Pray continually.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17 NIV

Now obviously Paul doesn’t want us to be down on our knees with folded hands 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That’s just not possible. So what does he mean? What Paul is saying is that we need to continually be in communication with God. And what’s cool is that we don’t have to use words. God know our thoughts.

“You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.” Psalm 139:2

So if God knows our thoughts, and if we’re thinking thoughts all day long anyway, how easy would it be to pray continually? All we’d have to do is turn our thoughts into prayers by directing them towards God. Let me show you want I mean…

Let’s say you’re having a great day – your soul is thinking “Man this is great! I’m having a wonderful day!” Just direct that thought towards God and it becomes a prayer – “God, I have having a great day! Thanks for all your blessings today!”

Or when you’re having a lousy day and you’ve got big problems and your thoughts are just stressing out –  just direct your thoughts towards God “God, I’m having a lousy day. I’ve got these problems I can’t figure out. I need your help.”

And as you turn all your thoughts into prayers, you find that you’re praying continually. And what’s cool about that, is that God can respond to your prayers continually. It becomes a conversation. You’re always praying and God’s always responding. And seeing God continually respond to your prayers is exactly what will help see how real God is in your life. You’ll know He’s there because He’s responding to your prayers. It’s actually pretty cool!

And that leads us into our third category. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and now with all our mind.

Now our mind is a little bit different from our heart and soul in that our mind like our inner computer. We use our minds to understand, to learn, to problem solve, and to store information. So how do we love God with our mind? Well, I think Philippians 4:8 points us in the right direction.

 “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8

In other words, we need to fill our minds with things that would please God. If we are going to love God with all our mind, we have to have the knowledge and understanding of God.

And of course, the best way to do that is to fill our minds with God’s Word.

This is an absolute MUST if you want to grow deeper in your relationship with God. If we are serious about really getting to know God personally, the Bible is got to be the first place we go. And It’s more than just facts about God that we get out of the Bible, although those are important too.

“For the word of God is alive and powerful.” Hebrews 4:12

It’s not just another book of information. God speaks to us through his Word. In fact, quite often God responds to our prayers through Scripture. As we spend time reading and memorizing and getting God’s Word planted in our mind, the Holy Spirit can use that knowledge and bring to mind just the right verse at the right time.

Say for example, perhaps you’re going through a really painful time in your life and you pray to God, “God why are letting this painful stuff happen to me?” God might bring to mind right then that verse that you were reading earlier –  Romans 8:28 that says “we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God.” We might not understand it – but we can have confidence that God is working for our good.

The more Scripture you plant in your head – the more God can use it to speak to you.

Are you seeing how all these things work together? Heart, soul, mind?  As we seek God with a soft heart, and as we continually direct our thoughts towards God in prayer, and as we fill our minds with the truths of Scripture – God become very real to us. We realize that God is right there. He hears us when we pray. And He answers when we pray. Imagine that!

But there’s one more thing that we need to do. And that’s to love God with all our strength. And I would sum up the principle behind this one with just one word. Obedience. Loving God with all of our strength means living in obedience to Him – even when it’s difficult.

Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. And because they love me, my Father will love them. And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them.” John 14:21

Our obedience to God is key to a close relationship with Him. It would be quite foolish of us to expect a close relationship with God while we’re living in disobedience to Him. It just doesn’t work that way.

So one of the things we need to check – if we find that we’re feeling distant from God – is, have we been disobeying God? Are there sins in our life that we haven’t dealt with? Stuff that we’ve just kinda let slide? If there is, that sin is going to be a barrier between you and God until you make it right. King David writes about this in Psalm 66:18.

“18 If I had not confessed the sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Psalm 66:18

When we have unconfessed sin in our heart, that sin keeps us distant from God. It’s as simple as that. But the solution is equally simple. All we need to do is to confess our sin to God. Stop hiding it or ignoring it. Deal with it. Make it right.

“But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” 1 John 1:9

When we confess and repent, God both forgives and forgets. He removes all barriers between you and Himself, and you’re free to enjoy a closeness with Him again.

Now I don’t know where each of you are in your walk with God this morning. I don’t know if you have a hard heart or a soft heart – whether you feel distance from God because of some sin – or whether you feel close to Him and can enjoy those soul conversations that we talked about.

But where ever you are, I want to encourage you – God isn’t far away. He wants to be close to you. He created you. He loves you. He wants to have a relationship with you. That’s what this life is all about. It’s your opportunity to build a relationship with your Creator. So I encourage you, make the most of that opportunity.

Soften your heart. Seek out a relationship with God.

Turn your thoughts into prayers and spent time in conversation with God.

Fill your mind with things that would please God – especially His Word.

And live in obedience to Him with all your strength.

Build a relationship your Creator!