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God Loves YouHe Always Has--He Always Will
By David Jeremiah
FaithWordsCopyright © 2012 David Jeremiah
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God Is Love
Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, My lips shall praise You.
In the days when the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody was preaching in Chicago, a poor drunkard stumbled up the steps to the front door of Moody’s church. The man pushed the door open, scanned the room, and saw no one inside. His eyes, however, were drawn to a large sign hanging above the pulpit that read “God Is Love.” It struck him—with anger. He slammed the door, and staggered down the steps, muttering, “God is not love. If God was love He would love me, and He doesn’t love a miserable man like me. It isn’t true.”
He went on his way, but those words were burning inside him, God is love. God is love. God is love… He couldn’t resist, Was it true… is it possible? After a while he turned around, retraced his steps, and entered the church again—confused and desperate. By now the people had gathered, and as Moody began to preach the man slipped into a seat in the back corner. He wept during the entire sermon as anger and confusion began to give way to joy and hope.
Afterward, Moody made his way to the door to shake hands with the people as they left. But the man didn’t leave. He remained in his seat, weeping. Moody came over, sat down beside him, and asked, “What are you crying about, my friend? What was it in the sermon that touched your heart?”
“Oh, Mr. Moody, I didn’t hear a word that you spoke tonight,” the man responded. “It’s those words up there over your pulpit, ‘God Is Love,’ that broke my heart.” Moody sat down and explained to him the depths of God’s love. The man listened and gave his heart to God, understanding for the first time that God really did love him.
In her autobiography, Over Mountain or Plain or Sea, Trula Cronk, who served as a missionary in India for twenty-four years, tells of a little girl who visited her house one evening and stayed just a little longer than she intended. Darkness fell, and she was afraid to walk home. Trula explained that she should not be afraid, saying, “Dolan, God loves you and He will take care of you as you walk to your house.” The little girl replied very solemnly, “No, memsahib, God does not love little girls.”
Trula Cronk was never able to forget that misguided statement, and it made her want to tell all little girls everywhere that God is love, and He does indeed love them.
There are many souls in this world who, like that little Indian girl and the drunken man in Moody’s hall, believe for one reason or another that God does not love them. Maybe they have suffered misfortunes that convinced them that God does not care. Or maybe they believe they have committed sins that caused God to turn His back on them. Or maybe they believe that God simply favors certain classes or races or genders and does not love the others.
Like Trula Cronk, I have a burden to dispel this grievous misunderstanding. I have a burden to tell you that God is love, and that He deeply, stubbornly, and eternally insists on loving every individual on the face of the planet. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done. As speaker and author Max Lucado has said, “You can’t fall beyond His love.” God’s love includes even people you may have trouble loving: That person who cut you off in traffic—God loves him. That woman who was rude at the grocery store—God loves her, too. That entire nation of people across the ocean that you deeply mistrust—God loves its every citizen. As a matter of fact, God loves you.
This is the most important fact in your life. God loves you. The eternal, self-existent Being who created and sustains everything that exists dearly loves you. The profound thought of God’s love should begin and end your every day. It should define your every goal, your every action.
And He doesn’t merely like you when you do well; He is personally and passionately committed to your good, even when you fail. God loves you. What would happen if that three-word sentence became the theme of your life—if you let it change everything about you and your world?
Let’s see if we can find out.
The Declaration of God’s Love
The Bible tells us that God is love. The apostle John writes, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). He reiterates this truth a few sentences later: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (v. 16).
It is important that we avoid two common mistakes when considering the statement “God is love.” The first is to invert the equation and insist that “love is God.” This is a serious error because there are many false loves that bear little or no resemblance to the perfect love of God. A man may “love” his mistress, but this is not God’s love. These false loves must never be equated with His love.
Secondly, we cannot make the mistake of subordinating all of God’s attributes to His love. There is more to God than love. For example, He is all-knowing, He is everywhere present, He is infinite, He is eternal, and He is just. And John can even write “God is light” (1 John 1:5). Any time we discuss His love, we must remember that God “may display one attribute or another at a given time, [but] no quality is independent of or preeminent over any of the others. Whenever God displays His wrath, He is still love. When He shows His love, He does not abandon His holiness.”
However, we must recognize the force of the apostle’s declaration that God is love. In fact John Stott has called it “the most comprehensive and sublime of all biblical affirmations about God’s being.” So what does the apostle mean when he says that God “is” love? He is telling us something about the nature and essence of God. It’s not merely that God loves, it’s that God is love. Everything He does is rooted in and motivated by love. He made the world because He is love. He formed human beings because He is love. And He rules the universe in love. In other words, John is reminding us that when we think of God and the world He created, we should never forget about His love.
Before we can go much further in this discussion, we need to do some additional disentangling. Just as people tend to be confused about who God is, they’re also confused about what love is.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations lists approximately thirteen hundred different definitions, reflections, and opinions on the subject of love, from the sappy to the abstract to the perverse. Everyone talks about love, everyone experiences some form of it, and everyone is driven by the need to give and receive it. But false ideas of love are tearing the world apart—homes, hearts, even nations. Why does this happen? Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft points out that “the more important a thing is, the more counterfeits there are. There are no counterfeit paper clips, but plenty of counterfeit religions.”
Counterfeit ideas of love are all around us. Kindness is often a counterfeit for love. Discipline causes pain, which seems unkind, so parents withhold it in the name of love. But authentic love will administer discipline to achieve a long-term good for the child. Sex is often misused as a counterfeit of love, causing unmarried couples to be led down the dead-end path of temporary pleasures instead of the harder but more rewarding path of a long-term marriage commitment.
Those who have suffered from common abuses of love are often skeptical of love from any source, including God. If your heart is broken romantically, you face the danger of concluding that all love, including God’s, is just as unstable. If you have a troubled relationship with your human father, you might conclude that your heavenly Father is just as unreliable. These mistaken ideas about God can be devastating, but they are not uncommon.
We cannot afford to make broad judgments about love or God from our limited personal experiences. Nor can we look to pop culture as any kind of authority—songs or sitcoms or soaps or cinema. We might as well get our idea of the beach from a child’s sandbox. Better to go to the ultimate authority on both God and love. The Bible must be our guide.
In the Bible the love of God is like a multifaceted diamond: Each glistening facet reveals some blindingly beautiful truth about God. For this is where the quest for love leads—to an encounter with God Himself. To begin to understand love, we must begin to understand God. And to begin to understand God, we must begin in no other place than the revelation of His love in the Bible.
The Momentous Task of Describing God’s Love
I am going to do my very best to describe God’s love. But I must warn you, when I have said everything I can possibly say about the love of God, I will barely have touched it. In many respects I share the feeling of Frederick M. Lehman, who wrote these words to the well-known gospel song “The Love of God”:
The love of God is greater far
than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star
and reaches to the lowest hell.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
and were the skies of parchment made,
were every stalk on earth a quill,
and every man a scribe by trade,
to write the love of God above
would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
though stretched from sky to sky.
In spite of our inability to fathom the full scope of God’s love, He has revealed it to us in many ways that we can clearly understand. Exploring what He has said and demonstrated of His love will help us to grasp, within the range of our limitations, how dearly and passionately God loves us.
God’s Love Is Uncaused
Our common experiences in life teach us that we must earn love. We must meet certain standards or conditions that will cause others to love us because of our good actions, attributes, or attractiveness. This is a weight we were not created to carry, a burden that leads to addictions and despair. Henri Nouwen explains:
The world says: “Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.” There are endless “ifs” hidden in the world’s love. These “ifs” enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and always will be conditional. As long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain “hooked” to the world—trying, failing, and trying again. It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.
In our human relationships, we generally do not love those who manifest unattractive or repelling actions or attributes. But God’s love for us is not like that; it is free, spontaneous, unprompted, and uninfluenced. There is nothing we can do to cause God to love us, and there is nothing we can do to prevent Him from loving us. God loves us simply because He is God, not because we have done anything to cause it. Author John Ortberg brings this truth home to our hearts when he writes, “Nothing you will ever do could make God love you more than he does right now: not greater achievement, not greater beauty, not wider recognition, not even greater levels of spirituality and obedience. Nothing you have ever done could make God love you any less: not any sin, not any failure, not any guilt, not any regret.”
When writing to his protégé, Timothy, Paul described God as the One “who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began” (2 Timothy 1:9). To the Ephesians he wrote that God’s love for us is “according to the good pleasure of His will” (Ephesians 1:5).
Contemplative author and speaker Brennan Manning calls this concept “love without motive.” He writes:
As a man, I love the Jersey shore, Handel’s Messiah, hot fudge, and my wife Roslyn. I love what I find congenial or appealing. I love someone for what I find in him or her. But God is not like that. The God and Father of Jesus loves men and women not for what He finds in them, but for what He finds in them of Himself. It is not because men and women are good that He loves them, nor only good men and women that He loves. It is because He is so unspeakably, unimaginably good that He loves men and women in their sin. It is not that He detects what is congenial and appealing and He responds to us with His favor. He is the source of love. He acts: He does not react. He is love without motive.
Because God is God, He does as He pleases, and it pleases Him to love us without cause. Think of the first days of the first man and woman ever to exist. God made Adam and Eve, so they brought Him no secrets or surprises. They could offer Him nothing He did not already have. He loved them simply because it was His plan to do so. From the beginning of time, God does not love us because we love Him. According to the apostle John, it is exactly the opposite: “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
God’s Love Is Unreasonable
Your first thought may be that it’s blatantly presumptuous for me to call God unreasonable. But I am not using the term in the derogatory way we usually apply it. Indeed, as you will see, I am eternally grateful that God’s love is unreasonable.
From the day Adam and Eve sinned against God, mankind has continued to rebel, to drift away from Him, and to break every commandment given to us for our good. It would seem that we have given back to God nothing but disappointment and heartbreak. Throughout the Old Testament, we see that if God had responded to us “reasonably” and reacted the way we do, He would have abandoned or destroyed humanity long ago.
Though God had countless reasons to have lowered the curtain on the human drama, He had none, humanly speaking, to press on with His love in the face of humanity’s persistent failings. This is why I say that God’s love is unreasonable. Though from a human perspective His love is beyond all reason, we simply need to remember that His thoughts and ways are as far beyond ours as the heavens are from the earth (Isaiah 55:8–9). So while His love is “unreasonable,” it is not irrational; it bears divine reason, which our finite human minds cannot fathom.
In Romans 5:6–8, Paul brings the reality of God’s “unreasonable love” down to a level we can all understand. He raises the question: “What would it take for any of us to die for another human being?” Very few people would give their lives even for a good man or a righteous person. But “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (v. 8).
It is possible to consider—it is reasonable, though something of a stretch—that someone might be willing to die for a good person. In Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, we see this kind of noble sacrifice fictionally demonstrated when the British barrister Sydney Carton willingly goes to the guillotine in the place of Charles Darnay. Carton’s sacrifice seems “reasonable” because he has led a somewhat dissipated life and has little to live for, while the falsely accused Darnay is a man of great honor, courage, and virtue.
In an extreme case and under certain dire circumstances and for an exceptionally good person, you or I might possibly find it in our hearts to make such a sacrifice. But for the vilest of criminals, a person who had made no contribution to society, and who seemed to delight in being an enemy of all that is good and right—would you die for that person? Your answer would probably be a quick and unmitigated “Hardly!” And that’s a perfectly reasonable answer.
Yet that’s exactly what Christ did! He died for you and for me, card-carrying sinners and enemies of God (Romans 5:10). It was in Christ’s sacrifice that God demonstrated just how unreasonable His love is. His love is so great, so far-reaching, so overpowering that Jesus Christ, the only perfectly righteous person who ever lived, willingly died in the place of unrighteous men and women such as you and me. We should never cease to thank God that His love is so unreasonable.
God’s Love Is Unending
Grappling with the magnitude of God’s love forces us back to the basics of who He is. The unending nature of His love is inseparably connected to one aspect of His own nature, which the Bible reveals in several places: He is “the Everlasting God… the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End… who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Genesis 21:33; Revelation 1:8). He “inhabits eternity” (Isaiah 57:15). He is “the King eternal” (1 Timothy 1:17). Of Him, the psalmist wrote, “Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God” (Psalm 90:2).
All of these passages speak of God’s eternal nature. They tell us that He existed always and will always exist. We know that God is a person, but that does not mean He shares the limitations of human personhood. Unlike us, He is not limited by time or space, because He created them both. Because He created time and stands above it, He has immediate access to the entire scope of time from beginning to end. Because He created space and stands above it, He can be at all places in the universe simultaneously. He transcends the ticking of the clock and pinpointing on the map. We cannot even imagine these mind-bending concepts because none of us have ever taken a step outside of time or space. Unlike God, we can occupy only one specific location and one fleeting moment.
God’s love reflects His eternal absolutes. God’s love is eternal, like He is: more durable than time, wider and deeper than the incalculable dimensions of the cosmos. As He tells us, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you” (Jeremiah 31:3).
God’s perfect love for you existed deep in the depths of eternity even before time began. He created billions of wondrous galaxies, most of which no telescope will ever see; He created lovely, atomic-level worlds no microscope will ever penetrate; He knows all, He transcends all, and He is magnificent beyond human imagining. Yet His love for you is so close and intimate that it far outshines that of doting human fathers who, when they first see their newborn infant, often count the baby’s fingers and toes. God actually numbers the hairs on your head. He knows and cherishes the tiniest details of your life, He watches over you every moment, and He has a plan for your life that has been in His heart longer than the world has existed.
In the modern classic Knowing God, J. I. Packer gives a beautiful explanation of what it means to realize that our lives are set within the perfect and constant love of God:
What matters supremely… is not… the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it—that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands. I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters.
There is unspeakable comfort… in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way that I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me.
In other words, there is incredible hope for those who are disappointed in themselves. God’s love for you doesn’t depend upon your perfection or achievement. It’s not that He looks away or isn’t concerned when you stumble. He sees it all, and He continues to love you with a love that is as eternal as eternity.
God’s Love Is Unlimited
Solomon, the son of David and the wisest man of his age, built a majestic temple to the glory of God. It was a place for worshippers to experience the Lord’s presence, a place where God had promised to meet His people in a special way. Even though this temple was a wonder of the ancient world, Solomon reflected on the inadequacy of anything built with hands to contain the magnificence of God. He said, “Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built!” (2 Chronicles 6:18).
Here is the paradox. We know that God is as far beyond us as the deepest reaches of the universe. Yet at the same time, “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27–28).
Since God is both beyond us and beside us, His love also exists beyond us, beside us, and within us. His love is to us as the sea is to a fish: The sea is huge and expansive beyond the limited range of any fish, yet in it the fish lives, moves, and has its very being.
Psalm 139 is a hymn to the omnipresence of God, but its observations are true for His love as well. Where God is, love is. Allow me to illustrate this wonderful truth by replacing the terms for God with terms designating His love in this poem:
Where can I go from Your love?
Or where can I flee from Your love?
If I ascend into heaven, Your love is there.
If I make my bed in hell, behold, Your love is there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your love shall lead me,
And Your love shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed the darkness shall not hide me from Your love.
Psalm 139 reminds us that God and His love are always present with His people. As a pastor, I have listened to many people describe the same feelings as the drunken man at Moody’s church and the young Indian girl in Trula Cronk’s story. They are convinced that they have wandered beyond the reach of God’s love. They say to me, “God could never love me because…” The truth is that there is no because that will fill in that blank. It doesn’t matter how you complete the sentence, you come up with a wrong answer. God could never love is a false premise. It can never happen to you or to anyone else.
But we struggle to wrap our minds around that truth because, in our experiences with fellow humans, we can think of so many ways to complete the sentence “Bill could never love me because,” or “Susan could never love me because.” When we seek the love of other people, we factor in the assumed requirement that we have to be perfect. But divine math doesn’t work the way human math does. When you add all of your flaws together and conclude that God cannot possibly love you, His answer is that He loves you anyway.
Since we encounter so few people who love without limits, we are prone to embrace doubts about God’s love for us. I believe that is one reason why the apostle Paul prayed that believers would be “rooted and grounded in love… able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge” (Ephesians 3:17–19).
We want to ask Paul, “How can we comprehend such a love? How can we measure something with no width or length or depth or height? How can we know that which ‘passes knowledge’?”
The answer is that we cannot—unless we receive help from above. And we do. Here’s Paul again: “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5).
This does not mean that the Holy Spirit has been given to us so that we can love God. It means rather that God has poured out His Spirit into our hearts so that we might begin to understand how great God’s love is for us. So great is His love for His own that it is necessary for the third person of the Trinity to be dispatched into our hearts that we might be able to comprehend it.
God’s Love Is Unchanging
In a world that moves and changes as fast as ours, there is one thing that remains constant: the character of God. “I am the LORD, I do not change,” God said through the prophet Malachi (3:6). The psalmist wrote that “the counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations” (Psalm 33:11); and “You are the same, and Your years will have no end” (Psalm 102:27). James describes God as “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (1:17).
What a wonderful thought to know that because God is unchanging, His love is unchanging. God’s love is constant in its faithfulness and continual in its expression; it neither diminishes nor disappears, regardless of our circumstances. In his book The Pleasures of God, John Piper writes:
Sometimes we joke and say about marriage, “The honeymoon is over.” But that’s because we are finite. We can’t sustain a honeymoon level of intensity and affection. We can’t foresee the irritations that come with long-term familiarity. We can’t stay as fit and handsome as we were then. We can’t come up with enough new things to keep the relationship that fresh. But God says his joy over his people is like a bridegroom over a bride. He is talking about honeymoon intensity and honeymoon pleasure and honeymoon energy and excitement and enthusiasm and enjoyment. He is trying to get into our hearts what he means when he says he rejoices over us with all his heart.
And add to this, that with God the honeymoon never ends. He is infinite in power and wisdom and creativity and love. And so he has no trouble sustaining a honeymoon level of intensity; he can foresee all the future quirks of our personality and has decided he will keep what’s good and change what isn’t; he will always be as handsome as he ever was, and will see that we get more and more beautiful forever; and he is infinitely creative to think of new things to do together so that there will be no boredom for the next trillion ages of millenniums.
The thought of being loved forever as deeply and continuously as a newlywed bride should change who we are. How can that thought not make us eager to respond to God and love Him in return?
We need only look to Jesus for the model of unchanging, ever-enduring love. Toward the end of His three-year earthly ministry, Christ must have felt deep disappointment over the lack of spiritual maturity in His disciples. Thomas doubted Him. Peter denied Him three times. Judas betrayed Him into the hands of His enemies. His three most trusted disciples fell asleep when He implored them to watch and pray during His time of greatest crisis. While He was beginning to agonize over the Cross and its implications, they were arguing over which of them would be the greatest in the future kingdom.
On His last evening of freedom, Christ humbled Himself as a servant and washed the feet of His disciples. Then He sat down to speak quietly to them one last time before His execution. Even though He knew Judas was at that moment moving through the streets to betray Him to the authorities, Jesus expressed to His friends His deep love for them and urged them to love one another: “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love” (John 15:9).
Even as these disciples demonstrated their characteristic misunderstandings, He called them His friends, not His servants. He knew his own execution was only hours away, yet He concerned Himself with comforting these flawed and stumbling men. He spoke of preparing them a place in heaven and about the coming of another comforter: the Holy Spirit. But again and again He returned to the theme of His constant love for them.
The apostle John summarizes: “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
It didn’t matter that His soul was in turmoil, that He would soon perspire drops like blood as He agonized in prayer. He kept on loving—and not just the eleven disciples around Him. “I do not pray for these alone,” He said, “but also for those who will believe in Me through their word” (John 17:20). As this prayer indicates, His love reached across time to this moment—to you, to me. In the shadow of the Cross, the power of His love never waned for a second. In a world that was condemning Him, and with excruciating pain and cruelty facing Him, His uppermost thoughts were of love for us—of helping us to understand the love of God.
Nothing that happened to Jesus could dislodge His tenacious attachment to us. He is a living picture of the unchanging love we’re describing. His love is perfect and always has been perfect, meaning it never varies, grows, or diminishes. In other words, the love He will have for us in the future will never be greater or lesser than the love He has for us now. And His love for us now is no lesser or greater than it has been from eternity past. His love for us is nothing less than constant, unchanging, and eternal.
There is a good side and a better side to God’s unchanging love. The good side is that God won’t wake up in the morning and decide He’s had enough of us. The better side is that even when we wake up in the morning and decide we’ve had enough of Him, He will still love us.
When the Bible tells us that God’s love is unlimited, I think it means God’s love is something like the love of the mother in this story told by Michael Brown:
A friend told me about a boy who was the apple of his parents’ eyes. Tragically, in his mid-teens, the boy’s life went awry. He dropped out of school and began associating with the worst kind of crowds. One night he staggered into his house at 3:00 a.m., completely drunk. His mother slipped out of bed and left her room. The father followed, assuming that his wife was in the kitchen, perhaps crying. Instead he found her at her son’s bedside, softly stroking his matted hair as he lay passed out drunk on the covers. “What are you doing?” the father asked, and the mother simply answered, “He won’t let me love him when he’s awake.”
God’s Love Is Uncomplicated
The crowning achievement of Switzerland’s Karl Barth, one of the twentieth century’s most prolific theologians, was his Church Dogmatics, a theological work containing more than six million words. It is told that when Barth made his only trip to the United States in 1962, a student asked him to summarize the broad-ranging biblical theology he had written in this vast work. His audience awaited his reply, expecting to be amazed by a profound statement from the learned man. After a short pause, he said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The audience indeed got something profound, but they also got something uncomplicated. In a dozen simple words, Karl Barth summarized the essence of all Christian theology in a way that a child could grasp as easily as a world-class scholar.
John 3:16, the most beloved of all Bible verses, captures the essence of what God’s love means for us: God loved and gave, so that we need only believe. We could write volumes of books about the subject and find new areas yet to be examined. Yet this vast tree of theological knowledge springs from a single seed, plain in its simplicity: God loves. Though He loves in profound ways we can never grasp, He has expressed that love in terms that all humanity can understand. We don’t have to plumb the depths of theology to understand what “I love you” means when spoken in the language of the heart.
God’s Love Is Unconditional
Most Christians are familiar with the word agape, which is a term used to describe God’s unconditional love. For the writers of the New Testament, the idea of God loving imperfect people in a perfect way was so radical and new that only the relatively obscure word agape could capture it. J. I. Packer explains: “The Greek and Roman world of the New Testament times had never dreamed of such love; its gods were often credited with lusting after women, but never with loving sinners; and the New Testament writers had to introduce what was virtually a new Greek word, agape, to express the love of God as they knew it.”
This loving, pursuing God was clearly visible in the Old Testament, but for many who do only a cursory reading of the Old Testament, this can be difficult to see. In the New Testament, however, God’s love is fully manifest through the revelation of Jesus Christ. It’s no wonder that the message left Jerusalem and took hold of the Mediterranean world so rapidly. It said that God loves everyone—not merely a single nation, tribe, or a sect; it said that God desires to save every human being from the web of his or her own sin, and that He wants nothing in return but the joy of our fellowship. There had never before been such a message.
Unconditional love flies in the face of the most basic drives of human nature. We tend to love conditionally; we love only those we consider worthy. God’s love is nothing like that. Christians see the unconditional quality of God’s love displayed on the Cross. It is love for the utterly unworthy, a love that proceeds from a God who loves simply because He is love. Such a love could never be conceived by men. Only God would dare to love in such a way.
The Direction of God’s Love
On the face of it, this is an easy question: Who does God love? All of us, of course. But “all of us” includes several identifiable groups. Let’s explore these special recipients of God’s love and how the Scriptures describe His love for them.
God Loves His Son
The preeminent recipient of God’s love is His own Son, Jesus Christ. On two occasions—first at Jesus’ baptism and again at His transfiguration—God the Father declared, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; 17:5).
In His final intimate conversation with His disciples, described earlier, Jesus acknowledged His Father’s love: “You loved Me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).
Earlier in that same Gospel we read, “For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does” (John 5:20). We cannot fully appreciate the meaning of John 3:16 and the sacrifice that verse alludes to unless we realize the deep and abiding love of the Father for His only Son.
God Loves Israel
One of the central themes of the Old Testament is God’s love for His people Israel, whom He specially chose to bring His blessing to the world. Again and again almighty God expresses His enduring love for the Jewish people. For example, the prophet Jeremiah tells us that God will be faithful to Israel as long as the sun, moon, and stars shine, the waves roar, the heavens remain immeasurable, and the earth’s foundations remain undiscoverable (Jeremiah 31:35–37).
The prophet Isaiah spoke often about God’s special love for Israel:
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
And not have compassion on the son of her womb?
Surely they may forget,
Yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands;
Your walls are continually before Me.
One of the most striking word pictures in all Scripture describes how God cares for and protects Israel. Two times Israel is called “the apple of [God’s] eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10; Zechariah 2:8). The Hebrew term for “apple of the eye” actually means “the little man of the eye,” referring to the tiny reflection one sees of oneself when looking into another person’s eye. That “little man” in the pupil of God’s eye is Israel. He is always looking upon the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are reflected in His eye, just as He desires them to be a reflection of Him.
God’s love for Israel does not mean He loves everyone else less. But because He chose them to bear a special assignment to implement His plan to redeem all of us, they have a special place in His heart.
God Loves Those Who Believe in Christ
If we are believers in Jesus Christ, then the Father loves us as He loves His own Son. It’s an astonishing concept. Yet in that Upper Room on the night of His arrest, Christ prayed this very truth (John 17:23; see also John 16:27).
The love of the Father for the Son is holy and unfathomable. Yet He has promised to love believers in Christ just as deeply and fully, making us His children and full heirs to His kingdom. The apostle Paul says of those who are led by God’s Spirit, “These are sons of God” (Romans 8:14). In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul speaks of Christ’s followers as “the elect of God, holy and beloved” (3:12). And in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, he describes God as “our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace” (2:16).
God’s love for believers doesn’t mean He doesn’t love unbelievers. But as believers in Jesus Christ, we have become children of God. Now God loves us as His own family.
God Loves the World
The most profound expression of God’s love is wrapped up in this truth: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). This world that God loves is a world that man ruined by his fall into sin. Yet man’s failure did not quench God’s unconditional love. In fact, as Paul tells us, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
We can also see that God still loves all the world, sinners and saints, in Paul’s words to Timothy: “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The apostle Peter affirmed this truth, saying, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
No matter how wicked this world may become, no matter how deep into sin it may sink, God’s love is unchanging. Jesus compares it to the love of a shepherd for a stray sheep. The shepherd goes into the wilderness to seek and save that lost animal (Luke 15:4).
Make no mistake: God hates sin. But He never stops loving sinners. He never stops going into the tangled wilderness of their failures to rescue them.
God Loves You
Against the backdrop of God’s massive love for the world, we could doubt that God’s love is also intimate and personal. But nothing could be further from the truth. In his spiritual classic The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer writes: “The love of God is one of the great realities of the universe, a pillar upon which the hope of the world rests. But it is a personal, intimate thing, too. God does not love populations, He loves people. He loves not masses, but men. He loves us all with a mighty love that has no beginning and can have no end.” In a similar but more succinct thought, Saint Augustine is reported to have said, “God loves you as though you are the only person in the world, and He loves everyone the way He loves you.”
In his book The Wisdom of Tenderness, Brennan Manning tells the story of Edward Farrell, a man who decided to travel from his hometown of Detroit to visit Ireland on a two-week summer vacation, where he would celebrate his uncle’s eightieth birthday.
Early on the morning of his uncle’s birthday, they went for a walk along the shores of Lake Killarney. As the sun rose, his uncle turned and stared straight into the breaking light. For twenty minutes they stood there in silence, and then his elderly uncle began to skip along the shoreline, a radiant smile on his face.
After catching up with him, Edward asked, “Uncle Seamus, you look very happy. Do you want to tell me why?”
“Yes, lad,” the old man said, tears washing down his face. “You see, the Father is very fond of me. Ah, me Father is so very fond of me.”
In the moment Uncle Seamus experienced how much he was loved by his Father in heaven, an overwhelming sense of joy flooded his heart. And he began to dance along the shoreline. Have you ever had a moment like that? Have you ever awakened and said, “He really does love me”?
God Loved You Before You Were Born
Oh, that marvel of conception…
What a miracle of skin and bone, muscle and brain.
You gave me life itself, and incredible love.
You watched and guarded every breath I took.
—JOB 10:10–12 (THE MESSAGE)
Billy Bigelow is a barker—a colorful, fast-talking character who attracts crowds at the gates of an old-fashioned carnival. He is the hero of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. Bigelow is rowdy, restless, proud, and given to fistfights and carousing. But something good happens to him at the beginning of the story: He meets and marries Julie Jordan. Their marriage, however, is filled with quarreling. Bigelow has lost his job, and his shady friends invite him to help commit a robbery. Then, as he considers the offer, Billy Bigelow’s world is changed. He learns that he and Julie are going to become parents.
To demonstrate Bigelow’s deep joy and exhilaration, Rodgers and Hammerstein give their hero a lengthy song called “Soliloquy.” It’s about three times the length of a typical Broadway song. The macho Bigelow imagines a son, a namesake, who will be rough-and-ready, strong enough to do any job he takes on: “My boy Bill, he’ll be tall and tough as a tree, will Bill!” The father-to-be glories over the wonderful possibilities. Maybe he’ll be a carnival barker like his old man, or maybe he’ll be elected president. Anything is possible for this child.
And then a sudden realization hits Bigelow—What if the baby is a girl? The song comes to a screeching halt. But not for long. As he considers the possibility of having a sweet little duplicate of his wife, he warms to the idea and begins to sing of his concerns about how to raise a little girl. But finally, with fists clenched in firm resolve, he bellows at the top of his range, “I’ll try, I’ll try, I’ll try!” Whatever is required, that’s what he will do, for a daughter needs a father.
Here’s my point in relating this story: It doesn’t matter whether Bigelow has a son or a daughter; he is already head-over-heels in love with a child who won’t arrive for several months. His life has found a theme.
Tragically, Bigelow concludes that he will need money to be a good father, and he dies trying to steal it. Later, he returns as a spirit to see his little girl grown strong and proud, just as he predicted. Carousel gets its ideas of heaven and salvation all wrong, but its depiction of a father’s love for his unborn child is right on the money. We recognize it from our own experience.
When a young couple announces that a baby is on the way, everyone tells them, “It’ll change your life!” But the fact is, they are already changed. From the first moment of anticipation, they see themselves in a different light. They find that it’s possible to be deeply in love with a tiny human being they’ve never met. They brim with dreams of the things they’ll do with their child—taking trips to the beach, getting a puppy, learning about God. Until that child is born, father and mother will think of little else; after the child is born, they will devote themselves fully to their precious offspring.
Where did this powerful love come from? The answer: It’s an inherited trait. We are made in the image of a heavenly Father who felt the same deep joy before we were born, but His love is even more powerful, more boundless. You know that God loves you now, but do you realize that He always has—even before you were born? Even before the world was created? He has loved you from the very foundation of time. Let’s explore what the Bible says about God’s relationship with you before you were born.
Before You Were Born, God Knew Your Identity
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.
The primary purpose of this passage is to express a truth about God, but it also says something about the psalmist who wrote it. Clearly David considered himself to have been a person even before he was conscious of himself. He was saying, “I, as a person, was covered by Your hand, O Lord, in my mother’s womb. I was made in secret and masterfully wrought in the inner recesses of my mother’s body.”
It is important to note that verse 16 contains the only use of the Hebrew word for embryo found in Scripture—translated here as “my substance, being yet unformed.” As God was forming you, He was watching over you in love. We know this to be true because the Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Everything God does, including overseeing the development of an unborn human child, is carried out in love. Henri Nouwen explains:
From all eternity we are hidden “in the shadow of God’s hand” and “engraved on his palm.” Before any human being touches us, God “forms us in secret” and “textures us” in the depth of the earth, and before any human being decides about us, God “knits us together in our mother’s womb.” God loves us before any human person can show love to us. He loves us with a “first” love, an unlimited, unconditional love, wants us to be his beloved children, and tells us to become as loving as himself.
Think of a baby being born in a stressful situation—perhaps in a car on the way to the hospital. The parents have spent nine months planning for everything to be perfect for their little one’s entry into the world. And then the unplanned happens—a late start to the hospital, a traffic jam, a fast labor for the mother. But the baby is born healthy; and once mother and infant are settled in the hospital, the mother coos her love to her baby and apologizes for the rough delivery. If that newborn could speak, he would open his little eyes and say, “It’s okay, Mom, I’m fine. God has been loving me from the moment I was conceived. I’ve been bathed in His love for nine months, and I know you and Dad love me, too.”
As far as I know, newborns can’t even think such thoughts, much less speak them. Nonetheless, the words I put in the baby’s mouth are true: God sees and loves infants in the womb from the moment of conception. That means He has already given them a human identity.
In the passage above, David writes with unmatched poetic eloquence about this loving and attentive heavenly Father who skillfully knits us together in the womb and oversees our development. We also learn that in His infinite wisdom and power, God designs us for our days even as He designs our days for us, writing our future in His book even before it comes to pass. Clearly God knew us and loved us as individual beings with a specific identity before we were born!
Before You Were Born, God Knew Your Complexity
For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
Modern technology now allows us to see the astonishing complexity of a developing child with our own eyes. In a 2010 TED presentation titled Conception to Birth—Visualized, Alexander Tsiaras, mathematician and chief of Scientific Visualization at Yale University, presented a series of incredible images of a child’s development in the womb. In his production you can see never-before-viewed videos and photos of the very first cell division, the development of the heart at only twenty-five days, the development of arms and hands at only thirty-two days, and the development of the retinas, nose, and eyes at fifty-two days.
Clearly astounded by what he witnessed in his own images, Tsiaras concluded his talk with these words: “The complexity of these things, the mathematical model of how these things are indeed done, [is] beyond human comprehension. Even though I am a mathematician I look at this with the marvel of, ‘How did these instruction sets build that which is us?’ It’s a mystery, it’s magic, it’s divinity.”
And Bible scholar John Phillips describes the magnificent complexities of our bodies at the cellular level:
We know that every living creature is made up of microscopic cells so small that the letter O on this page would contain between thirty to forty thousand of them. Each microscopic cell is a world in itself, containing an estimated two hundred trillion tiny molecules of atoms. Each cell, in other words, is a micro-universe of almost unbelievable complexity. All these cells put together make up a living creature. Each cell has its own specialized function and each works to an intricate timetable which tells it when to grow, when to divide, when to make hormones, when to die. Every minute of every day some three billion cells in the body die and the same number are created to take their place. During any given moment in the life of any one of these cells, thousands of events are taking place, each one being precisely coordinated at the molecular level by countless triggers. The human body has more than a million million of them—a million in each square inch of skin, thirty billion in the brain, billions of red blood cells in the veins. Obviously such a complicated and unerring development of cells cannot possibly be the result of chance.
The psalmist David knew nothing of the physiological phenomena presented by Mr. Tsiaras or Dr. Phillips—of molecular structures, of cells dividing and multiplying, or even of numbers large enough to describe the massive quantity of cells in the human body. And yet when it came to the bottom line, David knew what these men know. He understood that God’s work in fashioning him was marvelous—as indeed it was.
Our Creator is an artist of infinite majesty—a craftsman of breathtaking detail. All He does is driven and guided by His infinite love for you and me.
Excerpted from God Loves You by David Jeremiah Copyright © 2012 by David Jeremiah. Excerpted by permission.
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