Part 1 (of 3)
God is love. Because love is often misunderstood, so is God. There are powerful incentives on this side of heaven for misinterpreting and miscommunicating the intended meaning of “love”. Decoupling the word from its source removes constraints around the most compelling concept God ever designed. Usurping ownership of “love” and the right to redefine it frees mankind to leverage the ultimate others-centered term for self-centered purposes. In the name of “love” (and often in the name of “god”), governments manipulate and control entire populations. Leaders compel conformance by conspiring with media to turn public opinion against those not “loving” enough to comply with edicts deemed to be in the nation’s “best interest”. With no reference point back to its Originator, activists invoke their conceptions of “love” to move culture in directions that suit their personal interests. For example, our society today conflates love with tolerance, disingenuously applauding others for the passionate pursuit of pleasure to justify their own indulgence.
Those who don’t know Jesus as Savior struggle to grasp love’s true meaning because Jesus is its greatest ambassador and example. Some look elsewhere for role models, deferring to whatever celebrities, teachers and politicians consider “loving” (as if love were relativistic and not an absolute). Others wonder, “how could a loving God allow bad things to happen to good people?”, reflecting a fundamental misunderstanding of who God is and who humans are. Questioning God’s goodness and presuming man’s goodness implies love came from us and not Him. Likewise, dig deep into an avowed atheist’s or agnostic’s past and you’re apt to find they once believed in God but rejected Him out of disappointment that (at some point) He didn’t do what they wanted or did something they didn’t want. In other words, they thought they knew God but didn’t have a proper frame of reference for understanding His love. Since God is love, it turns out they didn’t know Him at all.
Even in some Christian circles, God’s love has been taken out of its biblical context, calling into question how well many believers actually know God…
- A recent study found that 60% of professed “born-again” Christians between 18 and 39 no longer believe a loving God would provide only one path to eternal life
- A pervasive message dominating Christian media airwaves and American pulpits rewrites John 3:16 to say God loves us so much that He sent Jesus to give us an abundant, fulfilling life
- A prevailing view of “faith” today is a firm belief that God’s love guarantees a particular outcome; however, Jesus modeled expressing a preference yet deferring to the Lord’s will no matter what it entails
- Many well-known pastors have succumbed to social pressure, deemphasizing the Old Testament for fear God wasn’t politically correct enough then for today’s PC culture
- We frequently speak of how “blessed” (code for loved) people are based on how many good things happen to them
- Contemporary Christian songs seem to require somewhere in the lyrics a reference to how our (loving) God will rescue us in this life from “storms”, “valleys” or “chains”
Perhaps churchgoers have heard popular passages about love so many times they’ve become desensitized, losing sight of the full context of God’s love. Some facets of His character are less palatable to consumers, but every dimension is rooted and grounded in His love. Common misapplications of verses like Romans 8:28 and Jeremiah 29:11 imply a linkage between God’s love and expectations that He will give us our heart’s desires and keep us from harm. But His love isn’t diminished when the Lord does whatever is necessary (from His eternal, omniscient perspective) to bring us closer to Him and lead people to Jesus. Nor was Christ’s love for His disciples compromised when they suffered and died martyr’s deaths.
The Old Testament prophet Malachi stressed that Jesus was coming because so few on earth, even in Israel, knew who God was. The next book in the Bible, Matthew, set that record straight – leaving no doubt that every aspect of God’s nature, encapsulated in Jesus, is about love. Today, as the world’s definitions of love infiltrate churches and many Christians lose touch with who God is, the day of the Lord’s next and final intervention (the return of Jesus), draws nearer. Before that second advent, we pray as many people as possible come to know the love of Jesus intimately. Toward that end, believers and non-believers alike need a framework for better understanding and communicating about God’s love to stem the tide of secularization in our nation. The Old and New Testaments repeatedly give us that framework, but somehow many of us didn’t get the memo. As result, some have left the faith while others have been led astray within the faith.
Couching Love in the Context Jesus Modeled
As a disclaimer and preface, no example or picture of God’s love can enable us to comprehend or live out the Great Commandment except by the power of the Holy Spirit. Having said that, the Holy Spirit implores us to experience that love by seeing God as Jesus saw Him – as a Father. Not only that, but the Spirit urges us to see ourselves as our Father sees us – as His children. The spiritual identity crisis faced by all human beings can only be resolved by becoming a child of an infallible, infinitely loving Father. That transformative sense of belonging completely alters how we treat others, how we react to circumstances, how we respond to opportunities, and how we make difficult decisions.
Jesus showed us what it means to live with absolute assurance that His Father is almighty God, the maker of Heaven and earth. Jesus modeled what we should emulate – a love commensurate with a level of faith only possible in a Father who can be completely trusted because He is unaffected by worldly worries, fears and temptations. In every way, Jesus was clearly His Father’s Son – in prioritizing prayer above all else to spend time with His Father, in His imitation of all facets of His Father’s character, and in reflecting His Father’s mercy on all those humble enough to identify as a child (rather than a father figure). To remove any doubt, Jesus almost always referred to God as His Father and welcomed being called His Son. He was unflinchingly secure in His identity, boasting only in His Father and position as His Child. Jesus went so far as to issue a dire warning to follow His lead – “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. (Matthew 18:3)
Picturing God as He truly is (our Father) and us as we truly are (His children) serves as guardrails, inhibiting misuse of the term “love” and keeping worldly definitions from invading the Church’s vernacular. It also gives Christians a context for sharing about God’s love that will resonate with non-believers. We might as well be speaking Greek trying to explain the difference between Agape (unconditional), Eros (sexual) and Phileo (brotherly) forms of love. However, if non-believers consider the lengths an exceptional dad would go to to defend and protect his children, the inextricable linkage between our Father and Agape love would become imminently clear. It was that purest form of (fatherly) love, not cruelty (as many non-Christians assume), that led God repeatedly to discipline Israel and rebuff its enemies. In addition, if the world saw God as a Father who loves us enough to pay the highest price to spend eternity with Him, they would be less inclined to dismiss Him as distant or callous for “allowing” disease and disasters. Without that fatherly frame of reference, modern society is applying untethered definitions of “love” to rationalize repudiating Christianity by labeling God as intolerant or harsh by their standards.
Until people know Jesus as Savior and God as Father, they remain spiritual orphans. An earthly dad cannot substitute for a heavenly Father. Feeble attempts to fill the “Father-shaped hole” end in what we’re witnessing today – rising rates of drug addiction, anti-depressant usage and suicide. America’s fastest growing religion, Selfism, inflates a fragile identity bubble around our nation’s youth that eventually pops because conditional self-love can never replace the unconditional love of a Father. Statistics estimate 85% of incarcerated youth come from fatherless homes. My fear is a larger percentage of Fatherless youth are imprisoned in sin and hopelessness. Personally, when my mom chose alcohol and prescription drugs over her children when I was 13, I counted on my dad to save the day only to realize I’d stepped “out of the frying pan and into the fire”. But divine providence soon led me to a Father who would never let me down and the rest – praise the Lord – is history.
It’s Your Turn…
In the next post we’ll delve into the many ways seeing God as our Father sheds light on the nature and depth of His love. Please share how adopting a Father/child perspective has impacted your relationship with the Lord and helped you share Christ with others.