“What’s Love Got To Do With It?”
If you were to guess, what do you think is the one thing in life a person wants more than anything else? Fame, wealth, beauty, status, power, position? I would argue that while a lot of people think that any one of, or a combination of, these would make them feel complete, none of these will truly make us feel whole.
I mean think about it, riches by itself is empty. We all know about rich folks who have ended their lives because they felt something was missing. Fame is fleeting. Just ask any of the “one hit wonder” groups of the 80’s or 90’s. Fame neither lasts nor does it give real meaning to a person’s life. And beauty? Well, whatever we have of it is slowly but surely giving way to time and gravity.
Power, position, status all these are relative. There’s always someone with more power, with a better position and higher status. So these can’t provide real meaning or purpose.
We are so desperate for this thing we need that we will spend our days searching for it. And if we don’t find it, we’ll go through life feeling unfulfilled and empty. It’s as important to us as the air we breathe. People have been known to cross oceans, scale mountains, traverse deserts in search of it.
So what is this one overarching need every human being has? It is to be loved. And I don’t just mean to be cared about or liked. I’m talking about being loved in a way that only true love can satisfy. To be loved without having to pretend to be someone we’re not–without our masks, without pretense, without expectation, without exception. More than anything we want to be loved for who we are.
We can be skeptical that kind of love really exists in the world. And with good reason, so much of what gets depicted as love in our culture is superficial, fleeting and generally self-serving. Consequently, it is difficult to believe that we could ever be loved, in the truest sense of the word, by another person or even by God.
A few weeks ago I read some thing in scripture that struck me as particularly significant and it has been percolating in my mind ever since. It’s a short phrase that we’ve all probably read or heard before, but may have passed through our awareness unnoticed. It’s in John’s gospel. John 13:23.s John writes, “One of the disciples– the one whom Jesus loved –was reclining next to him.” Did you see it?–the one whom Jesus loved.
In chapter 20, verse 2, he writes, “[Mary Magdalene] ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have put him.’“ There it is again, the one whom Jesus loved.
And in 21:20 John writes, “Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; this was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper . . . “
What’s interesting is that John asserts no less than four times in his gospel that he is “the one whom Jesus loved.” For some reason I found that fascinating and I began to wonder what compelled John to write these words.
I suppose one might think that John is making a statement about himself that in some way elevated him a bit above the other disciples. Sort of like, “Hey guys, I’m the one Jesus loved. I was his favorite.” You know a little like sibling rivalry. It does seem the disciples had a bit of that going on.
But I don’t think that’s what’s taking place here. I think John knew that Jesus deeply loved and cared for each of his disciples. John’s statement about himself as “the one whom Jesus loved” was an acknowledgment of the deep abiding awareness that Jesus did in fact love him.
You see I think John’s understanding of the love Jesus had for him came was a result of his being with Jesus for the three, three and a half years of Jesus’ ministry. John saw how much Jesus loved people and somehow John was able to apply that truth to him as well. In fact he was so confident, so certain, so assured that Jesus loved him that it dispelled any concern or doubt about whether or not he was truly loved and accepted by the Lord.
As I‘ve thought about it, I think the Holy Spirit must have inspired John to pen these words. God is trying to say something to us here. God wants us to know that we too can be the one(s) whom he loves.
I believe we can possess the same certainty and confidence John had in knowing that God loved him. Let me say it this way, I believe that you can come to a place where you can know, I mean really know, that God loves you! that the closest approximation may be like the romantic attachment that develops between two people when they first fall in love. Someone writes,
I finally know that someone feels that I, yes I am the most desirable, attractive, companionable person on the planet. Someone lies awake at night thinking about me. Someone forgives me before I ask, she thinks of me when she’s getting dressed; she orders her life and plans her time around mine, and most importantly she loves me just the way I am.
For the person, that’s a description of how God loves us; we are always first and foremost in this mind and heart. Of course unlike God’s love this kind of infatuation may lessen a bit with time. As in the example of one elderly couple who’d been married
. . . for more than fifty years. There they were sitting quietly next to one another on a train. A young couple entered and took the seat directly in front of them. Occasionally the young man would lean over and give his girlfriend a kiss. The older woman watched with delight. She whispered to her husband, “You know, you could do that too for a change.” The old man retorted, “What’s the matter with you? I don’t even know her!”
But unlike the love between two people, which may wax and wane, God’s love for us never changes, never varies, never lessens.
In 1 John, John makes a very important point. John writes that “God is love.” Now that might not seem like a big deal, “God is love.” But trust me, it is! You see John didn’t simply say, “God loves” as though it is something he does as if he has to will himself to love us. No. John says, “God is love.” That means way more than God does love. It tells us that the very essence of God, the very nature of God is love.
So what does that mean exactly. Well it means that since God is love, God will not, cannot do anything other than love. One author put it this way, “God cannot not love you.” God who is love cannot act apart from love. That means everything God does is motivated by his love for you
Now some might argue, “Hey God can do anything he wants. I mean he’s God after all.” And while that is true, it is not true to think that God can or will do anything that is contrary to his very essence. And for God not to love would be in complete opposition to his very nature–to who God is.
Let’s see if we can unpack this idea a bit. I think for most of us we want to believe that God loves us and, perhaps for some of us, we actually do know that God loves us. But for the vast majority of folks there is an element of doubt or downright disbelief that God really loves them.
Sure we may know that God is love but embracing that love for our selves is difficult to do.
For a long time I knew God loved everybody else but I had a really hard time believing that God loved me. Part of the reason has to do with the fact that I know myself so well. You see, I know me and at the core of my being, where all the stuff I know about me resides–the stuff that no one else knows about–well, that stuff makes me feel like I don’t measure up; like I don’t deserve God’s love.
When I look at my life, my struggles, I often feel like a failure. Sometimes I struggle to live the kind of life God wants me to live. Try as I might, I fail–not every time but sometimes. And then I wonder, How can God love me when I keep messing up? How can God love someone who struggles to get it right? Maybe you’ve felt this way and wondered the same thing.
I think most of us struggle from time-to-time. We struggle to do what’s right. We struggle to be God’s person. Sometimes we fight the good fight, and sometimes we surrender to our weaknesses. Sometimes we’re victorious and sometimes we’re defeated. So when I’m struggling to be my best for the Lord and I keep coming up short, I begin to wonder, “How can an all Holy God love someone so flawed?”
But when we question God’s love for us what we’re really doing is admitting our own fear of being unlovable. And there are several things that contribute to our concerns.
First, so much of what passes for love in our culture is superficial and conditional. How well we feel loved by another person is often based on our behavior, attitude, appearance, position, status, financial standing and a host of other things. Consequently, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible embrace the idea of being loved unconditionally just as we are.
Second, is that so much of the love we do receive comes our way as a result of our performance. If I perform well I will be loved well. If I don’t perform well, love may be withheld. This carries over into other areas of our life as well. If we do well at school or on our jobs we’re commended. If we don’t do well there can be penalties and on some occasions reprimands. So much of the approval we receive is based on our performance.
The third thing that gets in the way of our understanding of love is projection. For example: We may feel frustrated or disappointed with ourselves when we don’t seem to be able to get it right and then we project those feelings about our self onto God. We internalize that projection and assume then that God is frustrated and/or disappointed with us when we don’t live our lives perfectly.
Fourth and sometimes to our detriment, our understanding of God’s love has also been informed by the church. We’ve all heard, in one form or fashion, that doing the right things earns God’s approval while doing the wrong things warrant’s God’s disapproval. Consequently, we battle against the nagging sense that we must somehow earn God’s love
This becomes oppressive and to try and bring some relief we try all the harder prove to God that we deserve his affections. We work harder to try and keep God happy by making sure we do all the right things. And before you know it we are bogged down with trying to keep the rules; we begin to trust our own effort more than we trust God’s love for us. Problem is, our effort always comes up short.
We have to keep in mind that God’s love for us does not depend on what we do, but on who God is and what he has done for us. I love the words of the Jesuit scholar Peter Van Breeman when he writes:
God’s love is based on nothing but God’s self. That may sound somewhat disappointing. We prefer to think: God loves me because I am so dedicated and unselfish or because of all the good things I do. When we are told that God’s love does not depend on those things we are left feeling very uncomfortable. Perhaps we are left wondering if God’s love really goes out to me? The answer is an unqualified YES! You are loved by God with an unconditional love and [a passionate] earnestness. But you did absolutely nothing to earn [it]. It is a free gift given by the One who is most deeply in love with [you!]
Now, while this is true we also recognize that living the Christ-life does require something of us. I call this “cooperation.” We cooperate with God in living the life he’s called us to live. But, and this is important, even cooperating with God does not get him to love us more. The reality is God loves you completely, thoroughly, comprehensively, no matter how well or not so well you keep the rules, even when you’re not perfect, even when you fail: God loves you!
But I’d like to take it a step further . . . and I know this may be a new idea to some of you, but here goes: Not even sin can will cause God to stop loving you. That’s right, not even your sin can separate you from God’s love.
Let me clarify: While it is true that sin separates us from God, sin does not separate us from the love of God. My sin, your sin will not make God stop loving you! Yes, sin creates a rift in our relationship with God; however, sin will not change the fact that God loves you. Listen the words of the apostle Paul: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
I mean think about it, God loves you so much that even when you were in the thick of your rebellion (and you may still be) even when you were struggling with some sin in your life (and you may still be struggling), God gave his son as a sacrifice so that sin would no longer be a barrier between you and God.
So is there anything that can get in the way of God’s love for us? Paul answers this question when he writes, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38) Isn’t that exciting? Nothing can separate us from God’s love!
But we should not take that to mean that God’s love is permissive. In other words, God’s unconditional love does not mean that we are not accountable for our choices. God’s love gives us liberty; it does not give us license.
Listen again to the words of the apostle Paul: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). It is true that living in the knowledge of God’s unconditional love gives us freedom. It means we are set free from the power of sin in our lives. It is freedom to be God’s person; the freedom to be and become all that God has created us to be.
And there is great liberty in this freedom. Again, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:23, “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive. You see Paul recognized that with freedom comes responsibility and accountability.
But keep in mind that neither responsibility nor accountability diminishes God’s love for us. Quite the contrary, both being held responsible and being held accountable are aspects of God’s love for us.
Unfortunately we live in a culture that has progressively minimized and in some ways devalued both responsibility and accountability. We’ve all seen, heard of, situations in which someone does something wrong or against another person and that individual is not held responsible or accountable for his/her actions. In a climate where political correctness and tolerance have become the highest value, personal responsibility and accountability often go out the window.
This means that knowing that God loves us unconditionally does not give us permission to abuse or take advantage of his love and use it as a means to our own ends. If that’s our mind set, it demonstrates that we are still selfishly motivated. I knew a person once who said, “I know what I’m going to do is wrong, but I know God loves me and he’ll forgive me. So I’m going to go ahead and do what I want to do and then I’ll ask God to forgive me afterward.”
My friends, this attitude sneers at the incredible gift God gave to us in the sacrifice and death of his Son. This is a similar issue when Paul addressing the Romans writes, “Should we go on sinning so that grace may abound all the more?” Paul answers his own question with an emphatic “NO!”
Unconditional love does not mean we can do whatever we want to do and unconditional love does not mean God says: “Oh sure do whatever and it’s okay with me.” No the reality is God’s correction, direction, discipline; even God’s “no” is an aspect of his love. But when we fully embrace the truth that God loves us; that he is only motivated by his love for us, then we can begin to believe that he truly does want the best for us in all ways and at all times.