Last time I wrote, I talked about being consumed by … or obsessed with … God. My post (and my thinking) was inspired by the song, “You will be my Song” by Matt McCoy. A couple of days ago, in reading back through that post, I realized that I missed a critical component of the meaning of Matt’s song … to actually love God.
We’ve all heard that love is not a feeling. Love is a choice — a decision to put you before me. Love is “do[ing] nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider[ing] others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)
Love is sacrifice. If I love you, I will serve you. If I love you, I will take the time and energy to determine your needs and invest in them even if mine are not being met in return. Loving you means reaching out to you even if you don’t reach out to me.
That’s hard. Frankly, I suck at it. There was a time when I thought pretty highly of myself in this arena, but I’ve really had that wind knocked out of me lately. As it turns out, I’m pretty seriously consumed with wanting to be loved … to feel loved, but not all that great at actually loving others … now that I’ve learned a little more about what love actually is. And this is especially true with regard to my loving God.
Listen to how God has loved me … and you …
[Jesus], being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
But made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!
Or, how about this…
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
I have no idea how this works, but God really loves me. These passages (and a hundred others) demonstrate that fairly clearly — the heights and depths of God’s love for me (see Romans 8:38-39). For a really long time, I glazed over it … accepting a somewhat impersonal “God loves everyone” interpretation of passages like these. And that’s true. God does love everyone. But it’s not the main point Paul and John (who wrote these verses) were making. I think their focus was (and mine needs to be) on God’s profound, immense, personal love for me. Like a Father loves his son or a Bridegroom loves his bride. God’s love is both passionate and paternal. God truly knows me, and He loves me anyway.
So it’s easy to see that God loves me. The question is, “Do I love God?” Matt (McCoy) proclaims in his song, “God I’ll always love you.” I’ve sung words like that a lot in my life, but lately as I’ve stepped back to really ponder songs like these and Scripture that says things like John 14:15 (“If you love me, you will obey what I command”), I’ve come to question my love for God. Loving another person (my wife, my friends, God) isn’t mental, it’s heart. It’s actions. It’s attitude. It’s can be mushy romantic feelings (the soul), but it is also an act of th will (the heart). It’s commitment. Not mental ascent about what I should do or that the other party is pretty cool and therefore probably worthy of love on some abstract level. It’s diving in. Fully being there. Setting hope on. Placing before myself. Being devoted to. Etc.
This is a challenging time in my life. To be really honest, I’ve come to realize that I’m not sure what I believe and at times I feel pretty alone in wrestling through my thoughts and fears and feelings. Some have been quick to tell me what to do — things that feel like Christian platitudes — in response to my fears and feelings. And it definitely seems like there are a lot of “should’s” floating around, especially when it comes to relating to, trusting, believing, knowing, following God. Even loving God.
But the Bible says that it’s God’s kindness that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4), not the law … not the should’s. I’m really trying to turn my attention from what I think I know or what I think I should do … away from those things (which cannot bring life – see Galations 3:21) toward God’s love for me (which is Living Water, what Jesus describes in John 4:1-26). I want to be like the tree David talks about in Psalm 1, which thrives and flourishes because it’s planted by “streams of living water”.
There are churches everywhere that believe and teach that God will love me if I’m good enough … if I do the right things. This is, in effect, the anti-gospel, and might be the saddest horrificly-flawed interpretation of the Bible out there. But even the churches that have (by God’s grace) seen beyond this lie to realize that we work hard and do the right thing because God loves us … many still seem to focus on the actions of obedience (a list of things to do and not to do), not a living relationship with God.
God is wooing me. Calling me. Asking me to marry Him. God wants us to be together. Complete, eternal, unhindered devotion. Before I clean up my act or believe the right things or do spiritual stuff … there needs to be a decision to turn from my independence (being ruled by my sinful nature … maybe I’ll call it “the single life”) and decide to give that up for the Bridegroom, who has asked that I spend the rest of my (eternal) life with Him. This is no less than being born again.
But it is not the mental ascent to ideas or the effective negotiation of a list of do’s and dont’s that seals a marriage covenant with Jesus, the Bridegroom. It’s the absolute abandonment of the independence of the single life and the giving of myself completely to married life instead. Just like in an earthly marriage. You just can’t maintain independence and achieve oneness. There’s no going halfway. The Bible talks about this in terms like “dying to self” (Romans 6:1-14) and losing my life to find it (Matthew 10:39), purchasing a pearl of infinite worth (Matthew 13:44-45), and so on. In all the language and stories in the Bible, what life is really about is about marrying up … a relationship with the Bridegroom that allows us to trade a sad lonely life of my way and my self-gratification for the glory of a life together with Him.
Donald Miller, in his book “Searching for God Knows What”, puts it this way…
[The Bible is] attempting to describe a relational break man tragically experienced with God and a disturbing relational history man has had since then and, furthermore, a relational dynamic man must embrace in order to have relational intimacy with God once again, thus healing himself of all the crap he gets into while looking for a relationship that makes him feel whole. Maybe the gospel of Jesus, in other words, is all about our relationship with Jesus rather than about ideas. And perhaps our lists and formulas and bullet points are nice in the sense that they help us memorize different truths, but harmful in the sense that they blind us to the necessary relationship that must begin between ourselves and God for us to become His followers. And worse, perhaps our formulas and bullet points and steps [and lists of do's and dont's] steal the sincerity with which we might engage God.
Becoming a Christian might look more like falling in love than baking cookies. [Successfully baking cookies requires following a recipe - a simple set of steps.] Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that in order for a person to know Jesus they must get a kind of crush on Him. But what I am suggesting is that, not unlike any other relationship, a person might need to understand that Jesus is alive, that He [actually] exists, that He is God, that He is in authority, that we need to submit to Him, that He has the power to save, and so on and so on, all of which are ideas, but ideas entangled in a kind of relational dynamic. This seems more logical to me because if God made us, wants to know us, then this would require a more mysterious interaction than would be required by following a kind of recipe.
I realize it all sounds terribly sentimental, but imagine the other ideas popular today that we sometimes hold up as credible: We believe a person will gain access to heaven because he is knowledgeable about theology, because he can win at a game of religious trivia. And we may believe a person will find heaven because she is very spiritual and lights incense and candles and takes bubble baths and reads books that speak of centering her inner self; and some of us believe a person is a Christian because he believes five ideas that Jesus communicated here and there in Scripture [think "the Romans Road" and other examples], though never completely at one time and in one place; and some people believe they are Christians because they do good things and associate themselves with some kind of Christian morality; and some people believe they are Christians because they are Americans…. I think it is more safe and more beautiful and more true to believe that when a person dies he will go and be with God because, on earth, he had come to know Him, that he had a relational encounter with God not unlike meeting a friend or a lover or having a father or taking a bride, and that in order to engage God he gave up everything, repented and changed his life, as this sort of extreme sacrifice is what is required if true love is to grow. We would expect nothing less in a marriage; why should we accept anything less in becoming unified with God.
In fact, I have to tell you, I believe the Bible is screaming this idea and is completely silent on any other, including our formulas and bullet points. It seems, rather, that Christ’s parables … were designed to bypass the memorization of ideas and cause us to wrestle with a certain need to cling to Him.
At just the right time, while I was yet a sinner, Christ [called me to be His] (Romans 5:6-8, paraphrased). Not perfect, not totally free of my rebellious nature and my selfish desire to have things my way, but His. That’s how much He loves me. And the more I allow that to sink into my soul, the more it’s melting my heart.