God’s love is one of the great themes of the Bible. God is loving, compassionate, merciful, kind, and steadfast; His lovingkindness will never fail. Clearly Christians are supposed to know God’s love; clearly that knowledge is supposed to make a difference. One of the ironic truths of the Christian life, however, is that often we who name the name of Jesus have trouble comprehending the love of God. Disappointments, hardships, and heartaches can make the love of God seem elusive and abstract. Such times move us to ask the deeply personal question, “Does God love me?”
When a troubled heart impels us to question the love of God, usually we are not doubting the theological truth that God is a God of love. Nor are we wrestling with the age-old philosophical question of how a good God can create a world with evil in it. Usually we are facing a much more urgently personal question: “I know that God loves some, but does He love me?” Undoubtedly we might ask such a question for many reasons, but three often seem to work together:
- We feel guilty. (Maybe He’s angry.)
- We are suffering. (This is love?)
- We believe in God’s sovereignty. (He’s responsible.)
Can we come to know the love of God under such circumstances? Yes, we can. In fact, those are the normal circumstances in which God’s people learn that He loves them. One of my all-time favorite passages, Romans 5:1-11, explores and reconciles the three ideas above: our guilt, our sufferings, and the sovereign love of God. If our hearts are ever going to understand the depths of God’s love, we must start seeing that love in the light of passages like Romans 5. In this article I have no space or intention to explain the interpretation of Romans 5. Before I offer my thoughts on the love of God, however, I will provide a broad paraphrase of Romans 5:1-11 that captures the main line of Paul’s thought.
Paraphrase of Romans 5:1-11
I understand Paul’s message in this part of Romans to be:
My Jewish opponents would like to believe that God approves of them because they keep the law of Moses. They boast in their obedience and their relationship with God. But believers in Christ know better: mankind’s sin has made every one of us enemies of God. However, we who have looked to the cross of Christ in faith are the ones who are now at peace with God. In spite of our sins, we stand in the grace of God. What does that mean for us? What is the result of this grace? It means that we who formerly had nothing to boast of now have great boasts:
- We can boast in our new hope that one day we will enter into glory and honor. Our sin brought us nothing but shame, but as God’s people we will share His character and His glory. We are not boasting in what we have accomplished today; we cannot. We are boasting in what God will do for us tomorrow, which is great beyond telling.
- Oddly enough, we can boast in our troubles. In the midst of our troubles we must persevere in our trust in God and belief in His promises; such perseverance is incredibly valuable, because it tests and authenticates the reality of our faith. Having gone through the process of having our faith tested and approved, we emerge with our hope for glory strengthened and personally validated. Troubles tell the story of our hearts better than a mountain of pleasures could do.
- Now what guarantee do I have that such a hope will come true, that the glory I long for will truly be mine, that I will not be disappointed and embarrassed when the end comes? God’s love is my guarantee, a love which even now He is showing me through the work of His Spirit in my life. God has already shown the incredible magnitude of His love by sending Jesus to die for me when I was God’s enemy; how could such love fail to finish the job? Now that Christ’s death has reconciled me to God, how could God fail to completely save me, the friend whom He loves?
- Finally, we can make the boast that the Jewish legalists make in vain: we can boast in God. God really is on our side, not because we deserve it (we don’t), but because Christ’s death has paid the price for our sin and brought us into God’s favor.
Coming to know the love of God
Three wonderful truths emerge from Romans 5:1-11:
- God holds nothing against His people. His great love led Him to become a man and die for our sins. He knows our whole ugly story and still we are not His enemies, although we deserve to be; we are His friends.
- Believers have a great hope for a glorious eternal life of righteousness, a hope that will not fail to arrive, because God’s sovereign love will make it happen.
- God’s love for us does not free us from troubles now; in fact, it gives us those troubles, so our faith can be shaken and tested. Such testing is a good and loving thing, because it ultimately forces our faith into the open, where it can grow and encourage us.
This is the love of God pictured in the Bible; there is no other. Although God in His kindness may give us various earthly blessings, He shows His love to us most clearly by giving us mercy, hope, and sanctifying troubles. A love like this is exactly what we need, but that fact is not immediately obvious to us. Humanity has always had another, easier picture of God’s love: we think we can tell whether God loves us by how well life is going for us. If we are happy with life, God must be happy with us. Such thinking has a grain of truth at the heart of it: God’s ultimate purpose is to bless His people. Sometimes we can point to genuinely good things God has done for us in this life; today’s blessings do testify to God’s care for us. But the Bible makes it clear that using present prosperity to interpret God’s attitude is a foolish and faithless thing to do. God has far greater purposes for us than making us feel good at the moment. We have lessons to learn and a destiny to fulfill; God will willingly sacrifice our present comfort to bring us deep and eternal blessings.
Clearly, then, if we are going to understand God’s love for us, we must overcome our own faulty intuitions. We must see our present circumstances in the context of God’s larger purposes. This sounds very abstract, but in fact this is how we think about everything in our lives. The events of our lives don’t exist in themselves; they assume an emotional coloring that depends on the bigger picture. We see our lives as a certain kind of story, and each event is informed by that story.
Imagine someone hands you $500,000. How do you feel? Well, what is your story? What do you believe to be true when it happens?
- I am miserably poor, and this is a gift of more money than I have ever seen in my life. (“I’m so excited I think I’m going to faint!”)
- The money is for my boss at work; I am just the courier. (“Just another day at work.”)
- The money is a bribe to entice me to do something truly evil. (“Oh, I really need the money, but… I shouldn’t do this!”)
- I was trying to buy something rare and uniquely precious, something I have dreamed of owning my whole life, but the owner turned me down, handing back the money I offered. (“I am devastated!”)
Exactly the same phenomenon happens when we try to connect God’s love with the circumstances of our lives. We can only understand how much God loves us when we have learned to tell the story of our lives in a new, true way. Romans 5 shows us that God’s love is primarily to be found in mercy, hope, and redemptive troubles. We will understand God’s love when we deeply believe this to be true. By “deeply believe,” I mean that it becomes a part of our basic, fundamental assumptions about life. A deep, fundamental belief affects the way we think about everything else. By the miraculous grace of God, over time we come to deeply believe the gospel, giving us a new picture of our past, our future, and our present.
When we come to know the love of God, we will have a new picture of our past.
When we tell the story of our past, we often emphasize our own triumphs and the hurts inflicted by others. Romans 5 tells us that we can only truly understand our lives in the light of two other elements of our past: our many sins and the cross of Christ. We can’t understand the love of God without a picture of how big both our guilt and God’s forgiveness are. We often have a very weak picture of both our sin and God’s grace. Sure, we feel “bad” because we know we have messed up our lives in various ways and we suspect God is not happy with us. But do we understand how warped and guilty we are? We are rebels against the truth; we are rightly under the wrath of God. If we don’t grasp that picture, we can’t understand how big God’s love is.
If we were telling our own story rightly, our lives would have the aura of miraculous deliverance about them. We all know what deliverance feels like. I often have that school dream—you know, the one where you walk into a class realizing that it is the day of the final and YOU HAVEN’T ATTENDED CLASS ALL QUARTER. In this dream an agonizing feeling comes over me, a feeling of fear and regret and shame: “It is too late, and I did this to myself!” It is hard to describe the feeling of relief when I wake and realize, “It was all a dream.” The cross of Christ awakens me from the real nightmare of my life. It was too late; I did do this to myself. And yet Christ took the guilt of it upon himself so that I might wake into freedom and great relief.
John Bunyan understood this when he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. He portrays Christian as carrying a great burden on his back, the burden of his guilt. Christian is in agony until he looks at the cross of Christ and the burden falls from his back. If we don’t understand our own situation, this can seem melodramatic; such hysterics over a few mistakes. But Bunyan had it right: by rights the weight of our guilt should have dragged us into the pits of Hell, but we have been delivered.
The Bible is filled with stories about forgiveness and the joy that comes with it. Who are the heroes of our faith? Abraham, who brought devastation upon innocent nations because he wouldn’t tell the truth about his wife. David, who slept with another man’s wife and arranged for him to be killed. Peter, who at the worst moment of his Master’s life denied that he ever knew Him. What kind of stories did Jesus tell? Stories about a father who throws a feast for the rebellious son who blew half the family fortune; about a man searching hill and valley for one lost sheep; about a slave who owes his master more money than he could repay in ten lifetimes and the master forgives the entire debt! These stories ought to move us with the beauty and magnitude of grace. And if we have believed in and sought such mercy from God, then these stories are our story.
When we come to know the love of God, we will have a new picture of our future.
Think of some time when you wanted a really good thing. You could hardly wait for it, and then, finally, it came. Remember that deep, deep sigh of relief: “YES, IT HAS COME!” Now imagine that you are waiting for something so wonderful, so fulfilling that it will solve your deepest problems and fulfill your deepest longings. Imagine the sigh that will come from the innermost core of your heart on that day: “YES, IT HAS COME.” That is what Romans 5 tells us about our salvation in Christ: God’s love has brought us a hope that is glorious and unshakable. We are waiting for the best thing that has ever been, and when it comes, we will rejoice beyond our imagining.
The Bible is unembarrassed to picture God’s promises in extravagant terms of riches and prosperity. The kingdom of God is like: a treasure hidden in a field; a wedding feast; a pearl more precious than any other. What God has promised us is more valuable than gold; it is the true riches; we await a staggeringly valuable inheritance. Jesus said, “I have come to bring life and abundance.” If we don’t understand how great and fulfilling eternal life in God’s kingdom of righteousness will be, then we can’t understand the love of God.
When we come to know the love of God, we will have a new picture of today.
God’s love is tough love; it gives us not what is most comfortable, but what we need. Romans 5 tells us this. God blesses us with troubles so that our faith can be tested and approved. I’m not saying that God never shows us good and satisfying things in this life; often, however, the most significant things He does for us arise out of our troubles. To understand His love, we must believe in the redemptive value of the troubles God brings our way. Is this impossible? Not at all; we make such evaluations every day. Suppose I am lying helpless and drugged on a table while a man comes at me with a knife? Is this a scene from a horror movie? No, the man is a surgeon, and unless he operates I will die a long, lingering, agonizing death. Obviously I am not enjoying this, but do I want him to cut? You bet I do! My real story is much the same. I am sick with sin and death, and I need the divine surgeon to cut all foolishness and rebellion right out of my heart. I am not enjoying this, but do I want Him to cut? You bet I do.
The Bible is filled with pictures of God’s tough love. It tells me: the sick are the ones who need a doctor; we are sheep who need the rod and staff of the shepherd; every legitimate child is disciplined by a loving Father; the gold must be tested in the fire. Such pictures should make sense to us; in this world things often must get worse before they get better. So it is with you and me. If we do not understand how foolish we are and how much we need the training and discipline which God gives all His children, then we will not understand the love of God.
So do you want to know the love of God? I suggest that you pray. Pray that He will show you your guilt, so that you can understand the depth of His mercy. Pray that He will show you the greatness of His kingdom, so you can understand the abundance of His generosity. How will He answer those prayers? He will probably answer them by giving you troubles. In the midst of those troubles, by the grace of God, you will find yourself coming to your senses, seeing in them as never before the loving hand of God.