Saturday, May 21, 2011

What is God’s love like?

Romans 8:38-39 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, or things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is an amazing pair of verses at the end of Romans 8. But what exactly does this pair of verses say about God’s love?

I get rather confused whenever I hear these verses used to describe a love that cannot be resisted. A love that is so compelling that “nothing I do can separate me from God”. On the one hand, this phrase might only mean something like “no matter what I do, God will still love me”. To this I can absolutely agree, so long as we agree that God loves everyone. God doesn't love the lost any less, so while that truth might give us comfort at times, it really doesn't say anything about our relationship with God. But instead, I think this phrase often betrays something else, something more like “no matter what I do, there aren’t consequences to my relationship with God”. This often is backed up with an appeal to God’s love being unconditional. I believe this interpretation reflects a diminished view of God’s love.

To this I think we have to first look at the story of Israel wandering in the desert. God made a covenant with Israel that he would be there God, he would rescue them from Egypt and make them into a nation. But right after being saved from Egypt, Israel began to quickly rebel and reject God. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 that many in Israel missed out on the benefits of a covenant relationship with God because of their rejection of God’s love and persistence in rebellion. Hebrews 3:7-19 expresses the same warning: because of their consistent disobedience, rebellion, and unbelief, they failed to enter the Promised Land. Was God any less loving to these individuals? Clearly that is not the case. But it also reveals that there are consequences in God’s love. God’s love isn’t a compelling love that we cannot
reject. If we take what Luke 14 (or even John 3:16) says about the extent of God's love seriously (everyone, even sinners), then people reject God’s love all of the time! If God's love truly is for all people, then it cannot be irresistible because people all over the world don't know God's love (these two truths are incompatible). I
would argue that Scripture regularly shows God sovereingly allowing for his creation to freely reject him.

So God's love can be resisted. But the real question that the above attitude raises is about relationship: for those who know God, does God's love hold them so that we cannot reject it? The story of Israel says a lot about this, but I believe even some of our basic notions of human relationships can begin to answer this. I cautiously submit an analogy from marriage: I've been married for 6 years now, and I know
that I fail my wife regularly, yet she still loves me. But let's say I decided to move out, regularly call her tell her I hate her, and I started dating another woman. It would be foolish not to think that our relationship would undergo significant change. She might still love me, but our relationship would be severed. It would be a rather odd notion to expect that if one day I decided “never mind, I do love you” that things would be instantly restored.

My point is that the whole notion of any kind of relationship assumes some degree of mutuality. This gets very muddy when we talk about our relationship with God because it's a different type of relationship, and we do fail him very regularly. But there is an important distinction here: there is a difference between a relationship that is
temporarily broken and a relationship where one party no longer has interest in the relationship. The latter isn’t really a relationship at all. In other words, Christians daily battle ("struggle") temptation and sin, and might even have seasons of darkness. This is a very different quality of relationship though than an individual who not only is in sin and unrepentant, but has no desire whatsoever for
truly knowing God. Individual Jews in the desert seemed to fall in the later category. Because of their actions, their relationship with God was severed enough that they missed out on the experience and blessings of this relationship.

This distinction is further important because it really gets at the heart of what loving God looks like. God doesn’t want us to love him just with an emotion, a set of accomplishments, or a religion (acting a certain way, obeying certain rules, following certain traditions, or practicing certain ceremonies). More than that, God doesn't want us to love him as a means to an end (whether it be eternal life or the promised land). Like the prodigal son in Luke 15, all that God wants is for us to turn to him in repentance. The Bible makes clear that for us to love God means continuing to remain in Christ (John 15:9-10), it means living by faith (e.g. Gal. 5:6), it means in repentance (the primary imperative of Jesus' ministry). I think it is important to
remember that this condition of experiencing God’s love isn’t entirely on our shoulders (Eph. 2:8 teaches that the work of salvation is God’s), and Jesus is always there willing to help us through the difficult times (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:13). Further, there is real security when we remain in Christ (John 10:28). But God’s sustaining power and the security we have in Christ are never emphasized at the expense of our need to continually remain in him (John 15).

And this is really where I see the heart of God’s love: he desires to redeem the lost and restore people to relationship with him, but he also desires that people continue to choose him and continue in repentance and faith. God always accepts the repenting sinner, and his love, mercy, and grace are inexhaustible. God lovingly (and sovereignly) respects his creation’s free will. God loves us unconditionally and more profoundly than we ever could know, yet he does want a loving response of faith and repentance. Some refer to this with the metaphor of a journey: salvation isn’t just a past tense event, but rather something that in Christ and the power of the Spirit we are moving towards. In Galatians Paul argues that when we try to accomplish anything more than faith we really are surrender to slavery. It’s like a train getting derailed; it’s no longer on the path towards its destination. He uses very harsh language for this person, describing them as severed from Christ (Gal. 5:4). Instead,
he contrasts this effort with being led by the Spirit (Gal. 5:18), and argued that we are alive in Christ because of the Spirit, and as a result we should allow him to continue to lead us (Gal. 5:22). While this may be through the narrow gate (Matt. 7:13-14), it is the way to salvation and it is the way to knowing God’s love. This last point is rather controversial within the church, but I believe the New Testament is very clear that failing to remain in Christ, failing to trust him and live in repentance means the hardening of one's heart. It's a form of rebellion, and there is at least the possibility that persisting in rebellion and unrepentance eventually can lead to a severed relationship with God (e.g. Heb. 3:12-14; Heb. 6:4-6; Heb. 10:26-27; John 15:6; Gal. 5:3-4; Luke 8:11-13; 1 Tim. 4:1; etc.). Some may say these are only hypothetical warnings, but at the very least I think we cannot escape the reality that these are real warnings addressed to Christians to encourage continued faith.

This continual faith and continual repentance is necessary because so much of our circumstances challenge this attitude. We are neck deep in a world with values opposite of God’s, a world that wants to make the case that God’s way isn’t the best way. Many Christians face ridicule, pressure, or even persecution for this love. More than that, we experience the allure of sin, many of us have sinful habits and desires, and above all everyone has an insatiable pride that likes to substitute ourselves for God. This is why the only two options are rebellion or repentance: it’s either we align with God’s way or try to make another. God’s love is always available to those who repent, but repentance is necessary for relationship.

This is why Paul says what he says in Romans 8: in Christ we are children of God, we are free from sin, we are alive and led by the Spirit, and we know the love of God. Our present circumstances pale when compared to the joy of knowing God, and we know that God is victorious, even when victory is a word not even mentioned in the story of our lives. But no matter how much the forces around us might try to push a wedge between us and God, no matter how often failure challenges hope, God’s love us is always bigger. I think it's missing the beauty of Paul's hope here to make Romans 8:38-39 about our inability to resist God's love, especially when Scripture speaks so clearly to the contrary. Paul's point is the surpassing power of God's love, that no matter the circumstance his love can prevail. No power is able to overcome it, and as long as we are abiding in him, nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love.

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