This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)
Loved lavishly, beyond understanding, as Jesus lowered Himself, laid His life down for us to the uttermost lengths, even dying for us to show in real bodily life the depths of divine love.
This love, not abstract but enfleshed, not generalized but particular and personal— this love, this divine love become human, strong arms with tender touch, all powerful yet perfectly humble, applied to us in overwhelming yet all-wise manner.
We, too, are conduits of this divine love— receiving first, savoring first, overwhelmed first, but then giving, offering, overflowing from God to us to others and onward.
Lord, give me grace to receive and give, to be overwhelmed but also to overflow, and to know in wisdom and faith what that it looks like for love to become enfleshed in my very human life.
On Wednesday, I wrote here at the blog about how important it is to know we are deeply loved by God as His children. What flows directly from that love of God for us as his people is that we are called to love one another as brothers and sisters. Throughout Scripture, the church is consistently referred to as being a family. One portion of Scripture that makes this connection between God’s love for us as His children and our call to love one another very clear is Ephesians 5, where Paul writes:
“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2)
The church is a community loved by God, and because of that the church is also a community called to love one another. We are children of God and called to love one another as brothers and sisters.Another way to say all this is: Loved by God, we love one another.
This connects powerfully with us in our present moment. If there’s anything the past few years have shown us is that when hard times come, it is much easier to pull apart than to hold together. When the pressure is on, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to step forward in relationship and love with others. Yet, when hard times come, even when persecution may come, the church is still called to live in God’s love for us and our love for one another. We cannot disengage because we are a family established by God through Christ.
Not only in this present moment, but in our ongoing cultural pressure, we also need to remember something very important about ourselves as the people of God. The church is not an event or a consumer activity. In our culture, we have been groomed to think of everything we do as something to consume. We consume by binging online shows. We consume by quickly scanning snippets of online articles without really reading them fully. We consume by scrolling through Instagram or TikTok, often mindlessly. We consume by throwing away or replacing items that could be used until they’re truly worn out or could be reused by others. We are a consumer culture.
But the church is not one more consumer option among many. The church is not some place I go to figure out what I can get, but a family with whom I live to consider what I can bring…and what others can bring to me. It is a community of love. And you cannot buy love, even the Beatles knew that, and we cannot consume love, although people do try to do so in many ways. Love is forged within the time-bound, embodied connections, rooted in relationships of honesty, vulnerability, and experience.
The church is called to live in God’s love for us personally and cultivate true love one with another. Small groups help with this because they are like support groups for living in love. They are like workout groups for muscles for loving that we don’t have yet. Small groups are like mini-schools of learning to live in God’s way of love.
If the church is going to be a community of love, then we need to shed our consumerist mindsets and mannerisms when we think about existing as the family of love one with another. Loved by God, we love one another.
If you did a web search for the phrase “a new you,” you would find all sorts of interesting results. You would find anti-aging treatments. You would find opportunities for cosmetic surgery, body slimming, or laser hair removal. You would find self-help gurus and inspirational speakers offering solutions to your problems. You would even find car dealers and clothing shops offering you a much-needed new look.
How many of us have not at some point wanted a new look, a new identity, or a new persona? Now, listen to these words of the Apostle John from 1 John 3:
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-2)
Who are we, according to John, here? We are children of God. That new identity begins with the outpouring of God’s love upon us through Jesus Christ.
What is God’s love like? John tells us, first of all, that God’s love is “great,” a Greek word which conveys astonishment and wonder. God’s love is shocking—amazing—it has a greatness that surpasses our understanding.
Second, John tells us God’s love is “lavished on us.” We may not use the word “lavish” very often, but it conveys an extravagant generosity. It’s the word we use to describe an over-the-top gift someone gives us. God’s love is a great, gift-love. That shocking gift-love is at the very center of our lives through Jesus Christ. It establishes who we are. It determines our identity.
So much of our lives is spent trying to feel significant; to feel like we’re “someone.” We seek that through the love or attention of others, through our accomplishments, through standing out from the crowd in some way. But here, we are told that the limitless love of God is generously and shockingly poured into our lives. It’s not something we have to search for all our lives, it’s something that is readily available and given to us through Jesus Christ.
Settle into that for a moment. The God of the universe, who created us, loves us lavishly, shockingly, and personally.
How powerful it is to know that we are God’s children. I can’t help but think of the way Paul describes this reality in Romans 8:
The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:15-16)
Today, take some time to rest in the truth that through faith in Jesus Christ we are God’s children, dearly loved and held in the divine embrace by our Abba Father no matter what comes.
Put two fingers on your neck and feel your pulse— the current of blood coursing life from your heart throughout your body. You did not think to your heart, “Beat!”, or to your blood, “Move!”, and yet here you are: alive, upright, and living. Quiet yourself amidst the din of the world and listen to your beating heart. In every beat, God whispers, “I love you! I love you!”
Pause and take in a deep breath followed by a deep breath out. Feel the air filter up your lungs as you inhale and carbon dioxide release as you exhale. You did not think to your lungs, “Take it in! Let it out!”, but instead you have been breathing since you awoke and eve while you slept. As you breathe in and out rest in the breath of God, Who made you and sustains you, Who whispers in each breath, “You are mine!”
Walking through this day let each breath, in and out, remind you of God’s gracious presence with you. Let each heartbeat, thrumming through your body, remind you of God’s loving presence with you. These simple rhythms of the body, persistently present in each day and minute, become pathways of prayer in the everyday. Let each breath and heartbeat whisper back to God, “I, too, am Yours!”
Over the past month I have been reading Henri Nouwen’s book The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. This is one of Nouwen’s most personal books, taken from his journals during a time of great challenge and even depression in his life. I really appreciated the entire book, which struck a chord for me in what has been an extended challenging season for me as a pastor navigating through the pandemic, racial and political tensions, and various other things. The last entry in the book is titled “Keep Choosing God.” It was a wonderful conclusion to the book that I found very meaningful. I share it here in its entirety in hopes that it will be encouraging to you as well.
You are constantly facing choices. The question is whether you choose for God or for your own doubting self. You know what the right choice is but your emotions, passions, and feelings keep suggesting you choose the self-rejecting way.
The root choice is to trust at all times that God is with you and will give you what you most need. Your self-rejecting emotions might say, ‘It isn’t going to work. I’m still suffering the same anguish I did six months ago. I will probably fall back into the old depressive patterns of acting and reacting. I haven’t really changed.’ And on and on. It is hard not to listen to these voices. Still, you know that these are not God’s voice. God says to you, ‘I love you, I am with you, I want to see you come closer to me and experience the joy and peace of my presence. I want to give you a new heart and a new spirit. I want you to speak with my mouth, see with my eyes, here with my ears, touch with my hands. All that is mine is yours. Just trust me and let me be your God.’
This is the voice to listen to. And that listening requires a real choice, not just once in a while but every moment of each day and night. It is you who decides what you think, say, and do. You can think yourself into a depression, you can talk yourself into low self-esteem, you can act in a self-rejecting way. But you always have a choice to think, speak, and act in the name of God and so move toward the Light, the Truth, and the Life.
As you conclude this period of spiritual renewal, you are faced once again with a choice. You can choose to remember this time as a failed attempt to be completely reborn, or you can also choose to remember it as the precious time when God began new things in you that need to be brought to completion. Your future depends on how you decide to remember your past. Choose for the truth of what you know. Do not let your still anxious emotions distract you. As you keep choosing God, your emotions will gradually give up the rebellion and be converted to the truth in you.
You are facing a real spiritual battle. But do not be afraid. You are not alone. Those who have guided you during this period are not leaving you. Their prayers and support will be with you wherever you go. Keep them close to your heart so that they can guide you as you make your choices.
Remember, you are held safe. You are loved. You are protected. You are in communion with God and with those whom God has sent you. What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it, and it will be yours.