|"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you," said Jesus (Matthew 7:7). Image: The Globe and Mail|
What does it mean when we say God is love? What is love? It can truly be a lifelong process of learning, understanding and accepting. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, gives us a clue:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
This is all very well, you might think – the pursuit of virtue, of being selfless in one's thoughts and actions, is not a solely Christian occupation. But we believe there is only one perfecter of love within us, and that is Jesus Christ and the Spirit He left with us when he passed on to the heavens above. It is that Spirit that beacons us to think beyond the here and now to eternity in our daily activities. It is that Spirit that delights in love and rails against hate: for God, for self, for neighbour.
Jesus alone attends to our every longing, our every wound and our every human fault in order that we might know love and give love in return. The response to a revelation of God's love in our lives – in our hearts, souls and minds – is love in its purest form. "God is love," wrote John. "Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him." (1 John 4:16).
"But what if we have never experienced true love?" asks our reader. How can you know love if it has not been shown to you, when it has not knocked at your door and said, 'Can I come in?'. Oh, but it has!
Jesus wasn't our idea; in fact, WE weren't our idea. We didn't love God first; he loved us into being and He waits patiently at the door until we deem to let Him in. We were created for that purpose entirely: to walk the earth in humble partnership with God. We are made in God's image and each of us is reflection of some aspect of his creativity and personality, with certain commonalities that bind us all, including a deep need for love.
While we might feel we are in and out of love with God, His love remains the same: just as night and day are sure to come, so too his love (forgiveness, mercy, compassion) is there waiting for us to accept, or not accept. Because, as we read, love is patient and kind and holds no accounts of wrongs, does not laud it over us and does not demand anything from us.
How His love transpires in our lives is entirely unique to each of us, which is the wonderful thing about God. He attends to each of us individually. God is fundamentally relational: the strength of your relationship, and the grasping of His love for you, is entirely dependent on how much time you spend together, but also a deep-rooted knowingness; that He loves you no matter what, because when you accept Christ as your Lord and Saviour, He sees Christ in you.
It is not that we have felt love or seen love that's important, at least in a romantic or familial sense, but that love has known us and calls for us to respond... even when we weren't looking for it, even when we cared not for it but for other things, even when we have been most unlovely.
"This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us," wrote John.
Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and He means us no harm; only to bring us good. When we accept Jesus, who restores us to a right relationship with God (making us free of guilt and condemnation), we accept that God is goodness and wants to prosper us.
"For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord. "They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me... I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes." (Jeremiah 29: 11-14)
Jesus' act of self-sacrifice, the greatest act of love there ever was, has smoothed the way for our relationship with God, who imagined us into being by His very hand. Of course, something went terribly wrong, deep within our humanity: we pursued knowledge instead of a loving relationship with the Lord. We think we know better. But when we are proud, thinking only of ourselves and nothing of God or others, acting outside of love, we fall.
Kingdoms fall down, relationships crumble, men stumble. Hence Jesus, who restores us all.
It can be hard to make rhyme and reason out of our relationships here on earth (broken relationships, broken hearts, unrequited longings, imperfect marriages) without this fundamental understanding of our faulty humanity and our deep need for Jesus – our mutual friend, friend to all mankind, and Son of God. We are not deserving of His love, which is key. It is completely and entirely free. But when Jesus calls, it's unmistakable. Never can a soul feel more nourished and lovely than in His company.
I don't always feel "in love" with my husband, just as he doesn't with me, but I love him nonetheless because I accept his every fault and every flaw and choose to dwell on what makes him wonderful. That is how God sees us because of what Jesus did for us: took our every fault and flaw straight to the cross and dealt with it in the eyes of God so that we could have the very relationship with Him we were created for. The fruit of this relationship is for us to enjoy; what truly delights us often delights God and vice versa.
We are all deserving of love, but sometimes we are also not good at receiving it or seeing it or looking past the shortcomings of others to see they are just as brokenhearted as us. Thinking that we are loveable because of this or that aspect of ourselves is a true shame. Thinking ourselves unworthy because someone told us so, or because we were rejected in some way, is much worse.
How do we go about attending to this loveless life? This wounded experience?
We don't. Jesus does. God will reveal himself to us, and the sacrifice of Christ, in a very particular way. He addresses us in a way that is entirely unique; attending to our yearnings, addressing our experiences, healing our hurts, acknowledging our personalities and our dreams. God has dotted a course particular to each of us so that we may get to know His love, and share the spoils of this treasure with others.
The love of God, of Christ, and its power to work good within our lives requires us to be utterly and completely vulnerable, which is a very scary prospect. Especially if, perhaps, you have been a child who felt they must build up a wall between themselves and the world (which may, for instance, look like a big stack of books or video games or trophies or degrees or shoes or men/women in your bed).
Love can also be wrongfully dependent on how we feel about our performance: have we put on weight? Have we kicked a career goal? Have we accomplished all we wanted to accomplish today? If we tick all of the boxes, then we feel worthy of love, and love others more easily. But if we are off-kilter; if we are not ticking the boxes we might feel very unlovable, and so withhold it from others, too, which can result in bitterness that leads to self-flagellation (if you are not egotistical).
It can be a self-protection thing, this summing up of the self according to some misconstrued idea that love is dependent on performance. It can also flow from ideals and values communicated to us through family, friends, society and even church. The vital thing that this perception misses the fact that God loved us FIRST. He made us for the purpose of His love; that we might be a reflection of Him (made in His image) and live in humble fellowship with Him and with each other. "God loves each one of us as though there were only one of us to love," wrote Saint Augustine.
How does this love of God and love of us to mankind interplay? It's very different for each of us, though shows itself in acts of self-sacrifice; of putting the other before the self. This requires empathy, which is not easily developed in some of us. It also requires an understanding of our own faults and shortcomings – our wretchedness – and our deep need for Jesus, who evens out the playing field of life. There are no social rankings, status updates, awards and accolades in the world of Christ. He is our sole purpose, our sole vision, our sole reason for living. Any benefit to myself is a blessing.
Some days, love is near to me, some days it is far. It's a learned dependency, this submission to God's love. For me, this has been at once easy and difficult. Once I signed up for Christianity, I became acutely aware of God's presence in my life and my love for Jesus Christ and saw blessings poured out abundantly. But I also became, over time, acutely aware of how unlovable I am – of my inadequacies, ungodly attributes and pursuits, the silly things I've done and what character traits I need to overcome. Essentially, my faulty humanity.
The good news is this is not without restorative purpose and we are not alone. We are shown our frailties and faults to make Jesus' love necessary; to draw us close to God in humble submission. To allow ourselves to be loved by Him takes humility – many of us want to struggle on going it alone, trying to do this and that to brings us all the things that God gives us freely (security, peace, contentment, joy).
I think this is why God gave us his church – in deep Christian fellowship, in experiencing what's called "koinonia" love (fellowship, compassion, understanding... being one in spirit and purpose) we come to realise how very different our experiences are: the dysfunctional childhoods, the broken marriages, the diseased bodies... down to the more sinister aspects of our personalities (envy, jealousy, arrogance) are all on display and being dealt with day by day by day.
Meanwhile, we find that the more we practise acts of sacrificial love: taking the garbage out so someone else doesn't have to; smiling at the bus driver even when we are in a foul, stinky mood; letting the BMW in front of us in the traffic; declining to laud our latest triumph when we know a mate is in dire straits, sucking it up and taking a job we might not want to do to ease the burden on family finances... the more it comes naturally for us to do so.
Sometimes "doing" only comes after "thinking" and "knowing" and "believing", which in the first requires faith. The kind of "knowing" that casts out any disbelief, puts to end uncertainty, tells doubt where to go... it can be a hard slog. And, to this end, I can recommend a few different books to help you along – the non-fiction works of C.S. Lewis I have found to be particularly helpful in regards to painting a clear and coherent view of Christianity.
To accept Jesus' love is truly liberating; it leads us to demand nothing of others, to rejoice whenever love is demonstrated, to do all things willingly and happily, and to enjoy the glimpses of God's glory all around us – in action, word, creation, song, people and the miracle of life itself. Because all things that are good come from God, and He is gently guiding us along towards this revelation of truth, even though we are quite imperfect.
Sometimes we need reminding of this daily, which is why I like to take in the vision of the stained glass window showing Jesus hanging from the Cross in the Anglican Church on my walk. As the song goes, when we turn our eyes upon Jesus, the things on earth (all its worries, frenzied activities and trivialities) grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.
It is my experience that when you seek to find a revelation of God's love, He will take you through some interesting times until the idea cements itself in your heart and mind and soul. But you will not be left alone. God will bring along just the right people, resources (books, meetings, coffee catch-ups, albums, websites, stories, movies, blogs?), church and mentors to aid you in your pursuit – it's in His interest to do this for you. (I could recommend a few!)
In summing up, if God is love, then we might think on 1 Corinthians 13 in this way:
"God is not conceited – arrogant and inflated with pride; He is not rude (unmannerly), and does not act unbecomingly. God does not insist on His own rights or His own way, for He is not self-seeking; He is not touchy or fretful or resentful; He takes no account of the evil done to Him – pays no attention to a suffered wrong. God does not rejoice at injustice and unrighteousness but rejoices when right and truth prevail. God bears up under anything and everything that comes, is ever ready to believe the best of every person. His hopes are unfading under all circumstances and He endures everything (without weakening.) God never fails - never fades out or becomes obsolete or comes to an end."
I hope this helps even a little bit and has not added confusion or clutter to the matter at hand. I'm still working on practising love and accepting God's love, and will likely do so until the day I die.
"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2).
Girl With a Satchel
P.S. Special note to anon: Never be intimidated about leaving a comment; all are welcome. And thank you for pressing me to seek God on this topic; it's forced me to grow and learn, too. Just doin' life together, aren't we all?