“Why, then, this foolishness? Why are we afraid to think good thoughts of God? Is it too hard to think of God as good, gracious, tender, loving and kind? – John Owen, Communion With God
One of the natures of Christian literature is that books and articles are largely written in response to perceived cultural needs. Thus, a trend in contemporary Reformed writing and teaching has been a heavy emphasis on correcting popular Western misconceptions about God’s love. 1 These emphases have trickled down to influence how we live, speak, and serve in our churches.
Many of these correctives have been necessary and good. But in light of responses to my post on Christian Perfectionism, I’ve been wondering if we are failing to proactively build up a holistic, biblical understanding about the nature and centrality of the love of God in the life of the Christian.
I have noticed that in our personal lives, many who self-identify as Reformed (myself included) are neglecting to intentionally pursue growth in understanding and experiencing God’s love. I have also observed that many young Reformed leaders seem to be hesitant to encourage their people to meditate on the “good thoughts of God” John Owen referred to (his goodness, grace, tenderness, love, and kindness).
Why are we neglecting to pursue greater experiential knowledge of God’s love? Why might we be afraid to think good thoughts of God?
Why Are We Afraid?
Here are a few reasons why, in an effort to avoid error, many of us may be hesitant to pursue greater knowledge of God in his love. My hope in naming and addressing these hesitations is that we would be freed from fear to grow in communion with God and that those who teach would consider whether we are allowing our hesitations to disproportionately determine our tone and content.
Hesitation #1. We’re trying to avoid empty sentiment and are wary of placing an undue emphasis on subjective experience.
Some of us don’t naturally connect with affective language and may attribute others’ desire to experience God’s love as mere sentimentalism. Others are wired more emotionally but have seen the detrimental effects of following emotions down roads that lead away from God’s truth. Having found solid ground in biblical truth, we don’t want to wander again into a feelings-driven spirituality and may be proactively steeling ourselves off from yearning for deeper communion with God in his love. We may even chalk up these desires to spiritual immaturity and theological deficiencies.
The dangers of an emotional, subjective, experience-centered spirituality not grounded in the Word of God cannot be overstated. Popular teaching about God’s love that reads like pithy Hallmark cards, downplaying the seriousness of sin and necessity of the cross, is treacherous to souls.
But we must remember that the heart of Christianity is not knowledge in the form of propositions, but knowledge in relationship.
In reacting against emotionalism, I fear we may inadvertently neglect two truths about our anthropology and God’s nature—namely, that we are persons and that God is God. We as persons are not merely walking minds2 and God is much more than our thoughts, even true ones, of him. That means in order to know him in truth, we must truly know him.
J.I. Packer writes in Knowing God, “We must not lose sight of the fact that knowing God is an emotional relationship, as well as an intellectual and volitional one, and could not indeed be a deep relation between persons were it not so.”3 Similarly, A.W. Tozer writes in The Pursuit of God,
“We Christians are in real danger of losing God amid the wonders of His Word. We have almost forgotten that God is a person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can. It is inherent in personality to be able to know other personalities.”4
Wrong theology is dangerous because we cannot know God apart from his Word. But right thoughts of God alone are not enough because God is not just an idea.
As Christians, we have received the Holy Spirit who gives us both faith in the Scriptures and a personal experience of the God of whom Scriptures speak. The Spirit testifies to us that we are children of God, pouring out his love into our hearts (Rom. 8:15 , Rom. 5:5). How this is experienced may vary from believer to believer, but in all cases objective truth is experienced subjectively in our hearts. Packer again says,
“We need frankly to face ourselves at this point. We are, perhaps, orthodox evangelicals. We can state the gospel clearly; we can smell unsound doctrine a mile away. If asked how one may know God, we can at once produce the right formula…Yet the gaiety, goodness, and unfetteredness of spirit which are the marks of those who have known God are rare among us— rarer, perhaps, than they are in some other Christian circles where, by comparison, evangelical truth is less clearly and fully known. Here, too, it oddly seems that the last may prove to the be the first, and the first last. A little knowledge of God is worth more than a great deal of about him.” 5
In Ephesians 3, Paul tells the church that he prays they would have strength to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” Paul didn’t just want the Ephesians to have accurate thoughts about God and his love– merely agreeing with the wondrous truths unpacked for them in the epistle was not sufficient for their spiritual livelihood– so he bowed before the Father in prayer. Believers need the Spirit of God to supernaturally bring the truth of his love to bear on our hearts. We need to experience his love not just at the point of conversion, but continually and in increasing measure.
Our intellectual rigor and steadfast commitment to the truth of Scripture ought to be driving us further into relational pursuit of God individually and corporately. For, “to have found God and still to pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too easily satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart.” (A.W. Tozer) 6
Our experiences don’t determine the truth about God, but for the believer, God must be experientially known. And part of the knowledge of God we are to long for more of, for ourselves and others, is the knowledge of his love.
Hesitation #2. We are afraid that talking or thinking too much about God’s love for us will lead to self-centered lives.
Much of the way the West thinks about love has been shaped a culture where self-esteem and self-fulfillment are king. The same ideology behind parenting that shapes children who say to adults, “You can’t tell me what I did wrong, you’re supposed to be encouraging me” (this really happened), is the thinking that has given many of us our working definition of “love.” I plan to write more in my next post about unpacking “love”, but suffice to say, we don’t need more teaching that places self in the center and God as a servant to our emotional or material demands.
Because of how it can be misconstrued, some of us now feel unsure if we should say, “God loves you” without immediately attaching qualifications. Others of us fail to pray for ourselves, “God, I want to know more of your love for me,” feeling it is more fitting to pray for other things like greater holiness, obedience, or love for others.
But God’s love for us one of our greatest motives and resources for obedience, love for others, and suffering for the gospel.
Scripture repeatedly presents God’s love as a motivation for our obedience to him and love for others. Believers imitate Christ in holiness and walk in love as beloved children (Eph 5:1). Just as the experience of being loved by Jesus was the pattern his disciples followed in loving one another (John 13:34), we love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). The love of Christ controls us so that, knowing his gospel, we no longer live for ourselves but for him (2 Cor 5:14-15). And we don’t have to be afraid that knowing God’s love leads to a self-centered life because one sign that we are born of and know God (who is love) is how we love one another (1 John 4:7-8).
Not only does God’s love motivate us to love him and others, his love enables us to endure suffering and persecution. When we read the Psalms, it’s astounding how confidently and often the psalmists speak of God’s steadfast love for them (Ps 40:11, 57:3, 59:10, 66:20, 86:13). God’s love is a reality that comforts (Ps 119:76) and leads to rejoicing in adversity (Ps 13). Likewise, the apostle Paul’s confidence in the midst of persecution was founded on his knowledge that nothing could separate him from the love of God (Rom 8:35-38).
I think of a friend overseas, born and converted in a region hostile to Christians. She had faced threat to her life as a new believer and years later was asked by her brother why she couldn’t be less intense about Jesus. Why not continue to be a Christian, just more quiet and less passionate about it? To him, it seemed like a plausible solution to guarantee her safety and acceptance without fully rejecting her faith. She explained to me her response to him, saying, “I can’t. God’s love has scarred my heart.” Oh, that God would grant more of us such conviction of his love for us that we could not forsake him even if we were to suffer for it!
We are neglecting one of our greatest resources for serving in difficult ministries, enduring suffering, and giving ourselves radically for the sake of the gospel when we do not think often of God’s love for us. We are not helping those in our churches to live for God and others if we fail to let them know how loved they are by God or neglecting to pray that they would know his love for them.
Hesitation #3. We don’t want to detract from the God’s ultimate goal of his own glory.
The Reformed resurgence has placed God’s passion for his own glory at the forefront of our minds and churches, where it rightly belongs. While theologically we know that God’s glory and his love are not at odds with one another, in practice many of us seem to fear that focusing our attention on God’s love for us will detract from God’s greatest goal in glorifying himself.
But God receives glory when we worship him for who he is— and he is love.
God’s glory is his ultimate goal in all things, but his glory is not his only motivation for what he does. If we do not appropriately highlight God’s different motivations as they are revealed in Scripture, we can unconsciously diminish of all his other attributes so that our minds end up creating an image of who he is that is just as unbiblical as culture’s.
Christopher Morgan writes in a blogpost titled, “Is Glory God’s Only Goal?”,
God delivered his people for a variety of reasons, not merely one. The incomparable God acts out of love, holiness, goodness, faithfulness, and jealousy. This is critical to notice because if we equate God’s ultimate end with God’s comprehensive motivation, we end up subsuming his attributes under his glory. But God acts according to who he is. He loves because he is loving. He acts rightly because he is righteousness. Certainly, as he acts, he displays himself; and as he displays himself, he glorifies himself. But we must not say that God acts for his glory without simultaneously stressing that God acts out of his love, goodness, faithfulness—out of who he is.
To worship God rightly, we need to know him truly. If we fail to think of his love or only speak of it in order to correct others, downplaying his motivation of love (“Jesus died for you, but this wasn’t ultimately for you— it was for his glory”), we are missing a large part of who he is.
Over and over in Scripture, God attributes his actions to the motivation of his divine love for people (Deut 7:7-8, John 3:16, Rom 5:8). Rather than detract from his glory, a true understanding of his steadfast love has always been reason for his people to give him glory, honor, and praise. (Ps 33:1, 63:3, 106:1, 117:2; Isa 63:7).
That God is love is not the only truth about God, but it is wonderfully true at all times! It is mind-blowing, undeserved, poured upon wretched sinners, known by his children, and overflows into the praise of his people. “Amazing love! How can it be?” “How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure!” “Oh love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!”
I am deeply thankful for needful correctives about the love of God that orthodox Christianity offers in this day and age, but as Christians, we do not just want to avoid Western culture’s errors. Rather, we need to actively, passionately pursue greater knowledge of God as who he has revealed himself to be. Are we enjoying and growing in our knowledge of the wondrous love of God? Are we praying that those we minister to would experience God’s love in increasing measure?
In my next post, I plan on unpacking a bit more how we think about God’s love, especially addressing those of us who struggle with an image of God different than American culture’s caricature of him. Until then,
“May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thess 3:5).
And may we be freed from hesitation to pray expectantly with the Psalmist,
“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” – Ps 90:14
1 As a sidenote, the unbiblical, popular American conception of God’s love actually wasn’t really the type of error I grew up with or dealt with as much serving in Asian-American campus ministries.
2 See Ch. 1 in James K.A. Smith’s Desiring The Kingdom for a helpful analysis of how our anthropology is off when we think of ourselves as primarily “thinkers” or “believers.”
3 Packer, J.I. (1973) Knowing God. p 40
4 Tozer, A.W. (1993) The Pursuit of God. p 13
5 Packer, J.I. (1973) Knowing God. p 25-26
6 Tozer, A.W. (1993) The Pursuit of God. p 15