If you’ve been a Christian for a while, you may find there are lessons God goes over with you again and again. He speaks and the truth impacts you so deeply it feels new. And it’s not until you start sharing with others that you stop yourself and say, “well, this isn’t a new thing, but…” or, like I found myself saying the other day, “I feel like we’ve had this conversation before.”
Our hearts are like veering shopping carts when it comes to the things of God, often pulling naturally to one side. And as God consistently applies the correction we need, certain themes get woven into our lives.
For me, the love of God as my Father is one of these themes. And that’s not because I am naturally drawn to thinking about his love, but because of how often I fail to do so. The attributes of God’s holiness, righteousness, and wrath are not as difficult for me to meditate on and believe as much as his compassion, patience, and kindness. So I constantly need correction from his truth to see him in his love.
Veering The Other Way
A mix of factors makes some Christians prone to see God as overly permissive and others to see him as unduly harsh. We all bring different definitions of “God,” “Father,” and “love” to the table. These definitions are shaped by our cultures, personalities, experiences, churches, and families so we each understand different things when we hear, “God is a loving Father.”
It is common in the fallout of “Moral Therapeutic Deism ” or in American culture to ignore God’s holy transcendence, loving discipline, and hatred of sin. Yet in my experience ministering to Asian-Americans, I’ve found that many err the other way. I write today because I know there are believers who struggle to enjoy the love of God, often seeing him as distant, harsh, and unapproachable.
Encouragement for The Fearful
For the Christians who are fearful when it comes to approaching the Father or thinking of his love, I offer some encouragement that I hope will be like the hand of a friend helping you keep your shopping cart from veering.
Think of those who have loved you well.
While none of us sees God, his love is made complete in us when we love one another (1 John 4:12). Think of those in the family of God who have loved you and ministered to you. Think of their thoughtfulness, tenderness and care. Think of the times you have received grace and forgiveness from those you have wronged. Remember their sympathy, love, and comfort. The comfort and care God shows us often flows through our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sometimes it’s hard to know what it means that we are loved by God because we can’t see him. We can’t read his body language, hear the tone of his voice, or see (with our physical eyes) his hand in our day-to day lives. So it is that God uses his people to tangibly demonstrate his divine love.
John Owen writes, “How easy we find it to think of God as hard, austere, severe, unable to be pleased and fierce, which are the very worst characteristics of men and therefore the most hated by God.” Are you more prone to think of God like those who have the “very worst characteristics” or those who have loved you well? The kindness and care toward you from those he has placed in your life are expressions and reflections of the Father’s love for you.
Think of those you love.
Before my second daughter was born, I was nervous because I couldn’t imagine loving another child as much as I loved our first. Would my love now be divided, 50/50? It turned out that after she was born, I was given another heart just to fully love her with. And the same happened with the arrival of our third little one.
Even as fallen and finite creatures, we can love others with delight, compassion, and care in ways that may surprise ourselves. If we who love imperfectly can still love so deeply, how much more so the God of the universe who declares he loves you? Fathers, do you have compassion on your children? Likewise, your God has compassion on those who are his. We love those in our lives “to the moon and back.” Our Father’s love is as high as the heavens are above the earth. It is high, wide, deep, long and surpasses all knowledge. We declare that we will love our dear ones forever. He has not only said the same of his chosen ones, but that he has already loved us in eternity— from before the foundations of the earth.
Think of the delight and care you have for those you love. Would you willingly crush them with harsh words or have only rebuke ready for them each time they come into your presence? Does God’s love not far surpass your own? Though we may grieve over the ways we fail our loved ones, God has never faltered or failed in his love for his children. Dear ones, our love is but a shadow of the great love of the Father.
Meditate on the stories in Scripture.
Stories are important because they form our understanding of what “love” means much more so than a dictionary does. Our visions of love are formed by our own life stories and the stories we read or watch that capture our hearts. Therefore, Scripture doesn’t just tell us that God loves us, it shows us what this love is in his dealings with his people.
Stories are also important because they give us context to understand propositional truths. If we only had statements of truth like, “God is loving” or “God is just,” we would be prone to make false dichotomies about God. We may feel we need to pit his holiness against his love and care, or preface his justice and wrath with his kindness. But when it comes to God’s attributes, we shouldn’t think in terms of dichotomies or “balance” because there is never any conflict in God’s being. When we try to “balance” how we think about love and holiness or justice, we end up shirking his holy standards or, in the case of those I’m writing for, diluting his lovingkindness.
So study the stories. See how God shows himself righteous in punishing Adam and Eve and how he then in kindness clothes our first father and mother. Observe how he deals with repentant sinners and the ways he shows himself as the high and lofty one who dwells with the contrite and lowly. Consider the patience he extends to his complaining people in the wilderness. Think of his longsuffering through the prophets as he mercifully calls for people to reason with him, turn from idols that destroy, drink life-giving water without price, and flee the wrath to come. See the compassion he has on his weary servants as they face discouragement and despair.
More specifically, study Jesus.
Study Jesus, who walked as God among us. See how often the gospels describe him as moved to act out of compassion. Meditate on how he welcomed infants and children into his presence to bless them, rebuking his disciples for hindering them. Hear him tell a scandalous story of a father’s great love for his prodigal sons. Watch him at Lazarus’ tomb and as the onlookers said as Jesus mourned over his death, “see how he loved him!”
Consider Jesus, who went to the cross because God loved you while you were still a sinner– the ultimate demonstration of his love. Christians who struggle with God’s love often do mental gymnastics to avoid thinking about the cross as an expression of the love of the Father. They often focus solely on the motive of God’s glory or unconsciously think of God as reluctant in his sacrifice for them.
Remember, though, that God’s love is unlike ours in that he is completely free in all he does. God does nothing reluctantly because he is not bound by any standard outside of himself— in other words, he never does something he doesn’t want to do just because he has to. He redeemed you at great cost to himself because of his great love. And he does not now merely tolerate and care for you “because he has to.”
And remember that though Christ alone makes you righteous before God, God loved you before you were acceptable to him. As Tim Chester writes in Delighting in the Trinity,
“Please get this right. It is not that the work of the Son leads to the love of the Father. It is not that Jesus made the Father favorably disposed to us, won us His love. It is the other way round. The work of the Son starts with the love of the Father. You pray to a Father who loved you so much that He gave His only Son— His only Son, His precious Son, the most valuable thing in the universe— to win you, to redeem you, to adopt you.”
Finally, Believe The Unbelievable
I’ll never forget the response of a college student in Central Asia as I shared the gospel with her. Her eyes widened and she spoke with wonder and astonishment. “In our religion, we are only slaves,” she said. That God would relate to us as a loving Father was beyond what she’d ever dreamed. She responded to the good news with joy and trust, and I saw in that moment what it looks like to be receiving in faith truth that is so incredible, it is almost unbelievable.
It might be hard for you to think of God’s love for you because of how it is different than anything else you’ve ever known. And that may be because ultimately, it is. We are by nature children of wrath, and God would not be wrong to treat us all harshly, severely, and angrily. But he doesn’t. He extends mercy and grace, joyfully receiving all who would believe. His love was never conditioned on any loveliness within us and does not waver in the face of our failure. In this way, God’s love goes far beyond all that we could have ever hoped or imagined into the realm of that which needs to be received by faith. As the little ones sing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Children of God, we have come to know and believe the love God has for us (1 John 4:16). Let us continue to abide in his love by faith. Let us take him at his word and trust in the love we have seen glimpses of through people, read on the pages of Scripture, and experienced most wondrously in our redemption.