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The thought that “Jesus loves you” falls on stony hearts with some people. It isn’t so much that they don’t want to believe in God and his love, I think, as it reflects some painful things out of their past that has made them doubt there is such a loving and benevolent Creator of all things who cares about them. Life, you see, has a way of inflicting some terribly painful wounds on human hearts. And Satan tries to use those hurts as wedges between people and God. Let me explain what I mean.
The Golden Text of the Bible says this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Years ago I saw where someone had done this with John 3:16, and I've loved it ever since I found it:
So loved – the greatest degree
The world – the greatest rebels
That he gave – the greatest generosity
His one and only Son – the greatest gift
That whoever – the greatest invitation
Believes – the greatest simplicity
In him – the greatest attraction
Shall not perish – the greatest rescue
But – the greatest contrast
Have – the greatest certainty
Eternal life – the greatest possession
That verse plays beautiful, positive notes of music in my heart. I know what it is to be loved by someone (e.g., father, mother, wife, children), and I can transfer those positive notions to God. I can imagine the positive, affirming attitude of God toward me and calculate some of the positive effects of such a love in my life.
“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isa. 66:13). I can identify with that image of God because of experiences with my mother when I was so sick for so many years as a child. “But while [the prodigal son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). I know I disappointed my father in some situations, but he never turned against me or cut me out of his life. So I can identify with these positive images of God’s parental role in my life. And so on for biblical metaphors about Christ loving the church as a husband loves his wife, my unqualified love for my daughter and two sons, and the meaning of friends and other affirming persons in my life.
But there are some people who no longer believe in love because they have been hurt and exploited in the name of “love.” A woman remembers being molested as a child by some man who pretended to love her. Or maybe she was a teenager or young adult when somebody said he loved her and then dumped her and left her behind – maybe with children to care for by herself.
A man is defrauded by business partners he thought were his friends. Someone’s memories of childhood involve an abusive parent who scolded, berated, or beat him in the name of “loving” him. People have been betrayed by preachers who – in the name of “God’s love” built little empires or practiced their immoral behaviors behind a smokescreen of piety.
If the word “love” conjures up negative memories, painful images, and thoughts of defective relationships, talk about God’s love can be barren or painful.
Others cannot believe in God’s love, for they have been taught that God has been he source of all their heartache. “God took your baby because he wanted him more than you did” or “God gave you that brain tumor to teach you to trust him.” I recall talking with a broken-hearted lady whom I had just met and listening to her confide her confusion and anger at God over a severely handicapped and mentally retarded child. Some people from a church near her had told her, “God gives children with such special needs only to very special mothers who can give them what they need.” (Though I’m sure those people meant well by their pious sentiment, what they didn’t know was that her health was beginning to break under the strain and that her husband had just told her that he couldn’t take it anymore and was leaving! Did God arrange those things for her because she was capable of handling “special” situations? Hurt after hurt inflicted by her “Loving Father in Heaven”?)
What reasonable person can believe in a loving God if he or she has been taught to think that bankruptcy and heart attacks, car wrecks and divorces, or handicapped children and deserting husbands are his doing to single people out for tragedy?
At this very moment, there are people in the Northeast struggling in the aftermath of flooding caused by five days of torrential rain. At least 16 people in four states have died. Flooding has thousands out of their homes. The worst for them is yet to come, when they return home and start tallying the damage done to their lives by what has happened in the past week. You know what such disasters are called in insurance lingo, don’t you? Why, they are “acts of God.” No! Such events are simply natural disasters caused by powerful forces in the physical order of things. And they are often compounded by human shortsightedness in managing streams and rivers, errors of construction in building dams, or failure to heed warnings to get out of the way. What I know for certain is that God doesn’t sit around heaven dreaming up ways to torment his creatures with floods and wildfires, tsunamis and hurricanes.
I know what the people in New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey need right now. It is for multiple true “acts of God” to be displayed toward them. They need for their neighbors who still have our houses, jobs, and possessions to share with them. That might restore their shaky confidence over facing life after this tragedy has passed. I know what the Plymouth Church did, for example, after Hurricane Katrina to help people devastated by the tragedy in New Orleans to get back on their feet.
The reason so much of any church’s effective outreach begins not with door-knocking campaigns but with compassion is simply that we understand how some people cannot see God as a source of love and goodness in their lives. They have been hurt and betrayed. They are sick or homeless or enslaved to alcohol and other drugs. They are in miserable marriages that keep them perpetually frustrated and angry.
Maybe they are angry at life in general because they’ve had such a hard time. Perhaps they are angry at themselves for ruining what was once a fairly decent life. So God has become their “whipping boy,” for he seems to be a fairly safe punching bag for their disappointment and rage. It’s like an angry child screaming at her Mommy because she doesn’t know what else to do with her anger. People sometimes scream at or indict God because they are in more pain than they think they can bear, and they simply must strike out in one direction or another.
So I cannot assume that everybody I meet feels kindly disposed toward God. From a wide variety of life experiences, he may have very ambivalent feelings toward God’s love. She may not believe in God at all because of her secular worldview. He may be so confused by what he has seen in and heard from Christians that it is impossible to make sense of (much less believe!) the words “God loves you very, very much.”
When you and I try to be Jesus in that person’s life and help him in the midst of his pain, it may even backfire. If you’ll pardon the analogy, it is sometimes like trying to rescue a bird with a broken wing or a puppy who has been hit by a car. Try to pick up the bird, and he’ll peck at you and make angry sounds. Try to examine the dog’s broken leg, and he’ll snap at you – bite you, if he can.
The one thing we must not do is use the anger, ingratitude, or negative responses of some of the people we try to help as our excuse for withholding compassion and love. The job of the church is to make God’s love believable by treating people with respect, care, and support – even, no especially, the “hard cases.”
Ultimately, however, the proof of the love of God doesn’t come from our attempts at imitating Jesus to the people among whom we live but in telling the story of God’s dealings with humanity across the centuries. He is incredibly quick to compassion and slow to anger. He is eager to bless and reluctant to punish. “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
And even when he must punish evil in order to defend not only his own integrity but those who are attempting to live in holiness, he does so with the option of grace always on the table. “You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you” (Psa. 84:5). People remember the terrible flood of purging waters that God sent over the Earth but are inclined to forget that he gave wicked humanity 120 years to repent and be spared. People remember the fiery end of Sodom and Gomorrah but seem to forget that if only ten people could have been found in those two cities who could grieve over their wickedness both would have been spared.
One of the most extraordinary stories in all the Bible for me is told in the Book of Jonah. I’m not talking about the big fish that swallowed and then spit out the prophet either. I’m referring to Jonah’s racism and nationalism that made him pleased at the thought that Yahweh was about to destroy Nineveh. Nothing could have pleased Jonah more! So he finally – reluctantly, for this is where the flight by ship and big fish story come in – got to Nineveh and preached: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jon. 3:4b). When the people heard of impending judgment, they repented and turned to the Lord. And Jonah’s reaction was bitter, bitter disappointment. He wanted those people annihilated.
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jon. 4:1-2). Thank God that he is so gracious and compassionate, so slow to anger and abounding in love! Thank God that he “relents from sending calamity” when we make the slightest moves back to him!
Jonah ran from God because he was a bigot and racist, but God still pursued him. Hosea’s wife was a prostitute, but Yahweh told Hosea to pursue her as he was still pursuing Israel. Noah got drunk, Jeremiah was depressed and suicidal, Elijah burned out. Moses stuttered, Naomi was a widow, and Samson (can you believe it!) had long hair. Both Moses and Paul had the blood of a murder on their hands. Peter was scared of dying, and Lazarus already had died. Miriam was a gossip, Martha was a neurotic worrier, and John could be painfully self-righteous.
Why does God keep on pursuing people like these “losers”? Why does he keep on lavishing his love on me? Why is he trying to connect with your heart right now? It’s because he loves you. He loves you very, very much. He really does!
The final proof of God’s love for you is the cross of Jesus Christ. Augustine was right when he said the cross is a pulpit from which Jesus preached God’s love to the world. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Please pay attention to this incredible text and the three strands it weaves together from the biblical record: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8).
First, the crimson thread ends the verse: “Christ died for us.” What does that mean? There are mothers and fathers in this room who would die for your children. You love your babies so much that you would gladly trade places if cancer or a car out of control was threatening your child’s life. I’ve stood in hospital corridors more than once and heard people sob, “Why couldn’t it have been me? I’d have gladly taken his place!” Do you hear the words: take his place, trade places, die for her? That’s what Jesus did on the cross.
Second, there is a soiled and stained thread: Christ died in our place “while we were still sinners.” We weren’t obedient, loving children when Jesus died in our place. We were rebels. We were disobedient. We had not asked him to do anything for us because we were determined and deliberate in our sin. Because of our sins, we deserve to die. Because he traded places with us that day, we can live. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). We didn’t deserve it and hadn’t asked for it. It was a gift to our pathetically dark, stained, sinful lives.
Third, there is the golden thread of divine love: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this.” In some other settings and in light of some of your experiences, the message that God loves you very, very much can sound hollow, unconvincing, and even trite. But if you have been moved to see the cross of Jesus through the eye of faith, those words ring true! They hold the prospect of forgiveness and the beginning of a brand new life.
Irving Berlin (1888-1989) is the composer you know through such songs as “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” and “God Bless America.” In an interview with a reporter from The San Diego Union, he was asked, “Mr. Berlin, is there any question you’ve never been asked that you would like someone to ask you?”
“Well, yes, there is one,” he replied. “ ‘What do you think of all the many songs you’ve written that didn’t become hits?’ And my reply would be that I still think they are wonderful.” And that from a songwriter who wrote over a thousand songs!
Do you realize that God feels that way about you? He thinks every single one of us is wonderful. It doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks – whether they see you as a “hit” or not, whether you’ve been acclaimed as a howling success in life or written off by someone as a hopeless failure. God’s opinion of you is that you are awesome. Wonderful. Beloved. How can I be sure? It’s written in blood at the cross of Jesus.