Read an Excerpt
Embracing the Love of God
The Path and Promise of Christian Life
By loving us, God makes us lovable.
0ne morning, long after becoming a Christian, I woke to the realization that I was avoiding God.
I had been trying so very hard for a very long time to be the kind of person I thought God wanted me to be, but I had failed, over and over, to be that person. I was sure that God was ashamed of me, of my weaknesses, cowardice, and pride. I knew that I was ashamed of myself.
I could barely stand to look in the mirror. The person I saw in the reflection was flawed, imperfect, and had fallen instead kept myself busy, hoping to overcome my feeling of failure through good works.
But on this day I decided to face God again. I knelt down and confessed all of my sins and weaknesses, and I begged God to take away my flaws. I told God I would do better, try harder, and that I was sorry for having failed so many times.
I had done this before, of course. And even though I was making a thorough and heartfelt confession, I still felt alienated from God. The silence was deafening. I felt all alone. In my nervousness I found myself chattering away at God: "I am so sorry, please forgive me, I know I can do better..."
Then suddenly, the Spirit spoke within me: "Be quiet, Jim, and close your eyes."
When I closed my eyes I saw a lush green field, with the wind blowing through the high grass. Jesus was standing off in the distance and he began walking toward me. As he got closer I began pleading once again, "I am so sorry, please forgive me, I know I can do better..."
Jesus never said a word in response. He just kept walking toward me, looking straight into my eyes. When he got near me he lifted me up from the ground and hugged me. For the next five minutes I was hugged by God. No words were spoken, but a feeling of warmth and love and acceptance penetrated my lonely, restless heart.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
The above experience occurred eight years after I became a Christian. Though my life with God did not begin in this place, my life was changed by this. I had expected and feared God's disappointment, but I was shown God's love. Today I cannot say that the struggle to feel God's complete and utter acceptance is over, but I can say that my sense of alienation has been largely replaced by a sense of union.
From where did my feelings of alienation come? They did not appear overnight, but instead were the result of many years of being exposed to messages of condemnation and guilt. No one had ever fully explained to me the core concept of the Christian faith, the message that God loves us, searches after us, and longs for us to be whole. I heard bits and pieces of this gospel, but never enough to fill my heart. In its absence I created my own theology, a patchwork quilt made up of false images of God.
As a consequence, I lived my early Christian life with the belief that God really did not like me. God tolerated me, I thought, in the hopes of improving me. One day I just might get myself together, quit sinning, and start behaving like Jesus. Then, I was certain, God would approve of me.
I got up early almost every day, praying and reading the Bible between five and seven in the morning. I fasted once a week, spent time helping the poor, and maintained straight A's in all of my classes. I entertained the idea of becoming a monk because I figured that by abandoning the pleasures of this world I would please God even more.
In a slow, almost imperceptible way, I developed an unhealthy conception of God. As a result, the Christian life became a painful drudgery. On the outside I appeared joyful and upbeat, but beneath the holy veneer lurked a bitter and unhappy person who secretly hated himself and the god he served.
The God We Make in Our Image
Many of us find it difficult to believe that God could look at us and smile. For years I viewed God as a judge, as do most of the people I know. The god I served was angry with me, ready to punish me for a slight infraction. I never knew where I stood with this god. If I lived flawlessly, I might, for a few moments, feel secure, but for the most part I did not. Much of the problem was that I viewed God as a person much like myself. I created this god in my own image. Like me, this god was capable of love, but it was a conditional love. This god was mostly cold and distant, exact with his judgment and severe with his punishment.
This god of my religious imagination was eventually replaced by the real God, the God of Abraham, the Father of Jesus. But the change did not occur overnight. The false idol I had created had to be slowly melted down by the fire of God's furious love.
Christian author Peter van Breeman writes, "If we think God is a person who can divide his love, then we are thinking not of God but ourselves. God is perfectly one, the perfect unity. We have love, but God is love. His love is not an activity. It is his whole self."
God does not love, God is love (I John 4:16). I am capable of loving, but I am also capable of not loving. That cannot be said about God. God cannot stop loving, because love is God's nature. It is not my nature to love. I must learn to love, and only by God's grace am I able to love as he loves.Embracing the Love of God
The Path and Promise of Christian Life. Copyright © by James B. Smith. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.