God’s Love and Skeptical Hearts

Of all the things the Christian faith beckons us to embrace, the love of God should be easiest, shouldn’t it? Repentance is difficult. Sharing the gospel is awkward. Accepting God’s perspective on various issues can be a tough pill to swallow. But soaking up God’s fatherly affection for us shouldn’t be a problem, right? Right?

It shouldn’t be—in theory. Yet I personally find this part of the Christian life tremendously difficult. I can give a hearty “amen” to the holiness, righteousness, or sovereignty of God. But the concept of God being love (1 John 4:8) makes me fidgety and uncomfortable. I don’t find it all that hard to believe he is merciful and gracious—even to me, personally. However, I am anything but quick to believe that his mercy and grace arise out of real affection. When I envision God’s disposition toward me in the gospel, the first thought that flashes across my mind is, “He is gracious toward me so that he will be glorified.”

And this thought isn’t wrong. God is gracious to me in order that his grace might be returned with praise (Ephesians 1:6). He does forgive me for the sake of his great name (1 John 2:12). But the way I tend to think about God’s “glory getting” and “name exalting” is biblically malnourished. Though the Scriptures do no such thing, I am quick to detach God’s love and affection from his endeavor to make his name great. I am inclined to see his gracious activity as activity that is driven solely by divine self-interest (his glory) and void of emotional affection for its beneficiaries (you and me). I minimize verses like Ephesians 2:4 that plainly say it was God’s great love for us that moved him to make us alive together with Christ. I glance over passages like Romans 8:38-39 that clearly state that we are so enveloped and secure in God’s love that nothing—not even death—can shake us out of it. The truth is that God’s pursuit of glory and God’s heartfelt affection for his children are not at odds with one another. He glorifies himself by setting his ferocious, indestructible, self-sacrificing love on ill-deserving people like you and me.

Yet as God seeks to take my soul captive with his love, my knee jerk reaction is to wiggle free from his affectionate grip. I’m not entirely sure why I do this. I would guess my less-than-fantastic relational experiences with other people play a role. I also might be overreacting to the prevalent yet wildly unbalanced perspective of God that magnifies his love at the expense of his other attributes. Who knows—it may just be in my fallen wiring to resist something as mind-blowingly good as the love of God! I could speculate over causes all day long, but at the end of the day, my hesitancy to embrace God’s love for me is a form of unbelief. And unbelief, in whatever shape it takes, is an opponent of the joyful life of faith that Christ calls us to—an opponent that must be beaten and bloodied until it lies dead.

Though I am still very much “in process” when it comes to being a glad recipient of God’s love, there are a couple of “combat strategies” that are greatly aiding me as I battle my way toward a comfortable rest in his heartfelt affection:

1) Prayerfully meditating on the personal love of God revealed in the Scriptures.

God has demonstrated his love for us in powerful ways throughout history—most clearly and fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Holy Spirit has preserved a record of these demonstrations in written form and inspired chosen men to elaborate on their marvelous implications. We call this collection of writings the Bible. When we stare into the face of God’s clearly communicated love for us in the Bible, the Holy Spirit, by some mysterious process, enables us to experience the love of God.

This happened to me just last week. As I was studying Hebrews chapter 2, my soul began to well up with a wonderful, warm sensation as I pondered the person and work of Christ. The lengths to which Jesus went for us—leaving his eternal glory, enduring and defeating temptation (at a 100% success rate) for 30 some-odd years, suffering under God’s wrath for our sins—are astounding. And they were propelled by nothing less than pure, potent, self-sacrificing love. Yes, Jesus did these things to please the Father and glorify his name. But he also did them because he loves us.

The eternal Son of God is not ashamed to call us—mere creations of his hands—his brothers (Hebrews 2:11). He died to deliver us (Hebrews 2:15) and lives to empathetically help us in our sufferings and temptations (Hebrews 2:18). I don’t know how he does it, but the Holy Spirit hammers the felt love of God into my heart as I process truths like these. Not every episode is as dynamic as my time in Hebrews 2 last week. But I’ve seen that as I continue to make a practice of setting my mind on the objective demonstrations of God’s love recorded and explained in the Bible, my subjective experience of that love gradually intensifies.

2) Practicing biblical community.

One of the primary vehicles God uses to minister his love to his people is his people. He ministers to us directly, as I described in the last few paragraphs. But he also expresses his affection for us indirectly through the mercy, grace, compassion, steadfastness, and forgiveness of other believers. As members of Christ’s body who have been infused with his Spirit, we are each, in a very literal sense, an extension of his person. The love that he has for the church indwells us and manifests through us.

Living in community with other Christians has been a powerful catalyst in the development of my belief that God possesses a real, emotional affection toward his people—including me. The otherworldly kind of love that I have experienced from other believers and discovered within myself toward other believers did not originate within us. I lived the first twenty-one years of my life apart from Christ, and I remember what my affection for others felt like and what their affection for me was like. It is incommunicably weak in comparison to the depth and strength of the Christian affection I have experienced since my adoption into God’s family. This is God’s love within us. And the experience of this affection, though imperfectly expressed through imperfect people, reminds me that God’s personal love for me is very real.

As I’ve already said, I am still very much “in process.” I struggle every day to receive and enjoy the love God says he has for me. But through both his direct and indirect means, he continues to chisel away at my hardhearted resistance and shower my soul with his affection. Though the process is slow and messy, I am inching my way toward being a person who can honestly say, “[I] have come to know and believe the love that God has for [me] (1 John 4:16).

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