Receiving God’s love
We are a funny bunch, we evangelical Christians. Against the moral anarchy of our generation we are right to proclaim that the Day of Judgement is coming and that we are all sinners in need of a saviour; but somehow our emotional life can end up arrested at that same point: the feeling of being sinners. Yet the Gospel offers us a much happier freedom and pleasure.
It’s a bit like a computer freezing at a certain point, or one of those illnesses where a child’s body or mind remain stuck at a certain age or stage.
How many of us say we believe in the Gospel but emotionally live in a darker, disapproving, struggling, guilty place. Some of you have spoken to me of this: of having a distorted view of God’s vast love and grace, of not at all feeling that we know him personally. Yet God wants us to be in a cheekier, bold, glad and grateful mind-set where we are confident in his delight in us.
How can we come to think in this way, that we know him and have assurance of the pleasure he has in us?
The puritan John Owen puts the dilemma vividly. Many dark and disturbing thoughts are apt to arise in this matter, he says. Few Christians can so lift up their hearts and minds as to be at rest in the love of the Father. They live below that glad place, in the troublesome region of hopes and fears, storms and clouds. All there is serene and quiet, but they do not know how to attain to it. So he offers the following steps to a more mature faith. (Vol 2 p.21-40).
Owen starts by saying that God’s love for us is a combination of commitment to our welfare and genuine friendship, and goes on: God holds out to us unanswerable assurance of his love in the things he likens himself to – a father, a mother, a shepherd, a hen with her chicks and so on. He lists (look up!) Psalm 103.13, Isaiah 63.16, Matthew 6.6, Isaiah 66.13, Psalm 23.1, Isaiah 40.11 and Matthew 23.37.
So we know that God loves us and wants us to believe and enjoy his love of us. Well, in order to enable us to have fellowship with him in love just two steps are needed: to receive that love, and to return it.
How do we receive it? Simply by believing it. He wants us to regard him as always benign, kind, tender and loving, unalterably so.
And how do we return it? Simply by loving him back: 'My child, give me your heart" (Proverbs 23.26). In other words, have an affection for him – a relation of unity with and nearness to him – with peaceful pleasure and satisfaction!
To help us actually enjoy God’s love and love him back, do the following.
1. Practise regarding the Father as love. Let this be our first notion of him: as being full of eternal, free love for us.
2. So reckon on God’s love for you as to receive it: that is, believe that the Father’s heart is set on you.
3. Let that lead you to love him back, reverently, with delight, wanting to obey him.
After all, to believe Him in this gives him the honour that means most to him: the honour of being regarded as full of love for you.
Try this then: think about the eternal, free and so-fruitful love of the Father for you, and just see if that does not work on your heart so that you delight in him and find pleasure in him. You who have previously run from him will soon be unable to stay away from him!
Owen brings his essay to an end by answering three objections.
1. But how can I? – I don’t know whether he loves me or not. Isn’t it presumptuous?
Answer: The way to receive God’s love is nothing more than simply to believe him.
2. I can believe that God loves other people, but not that he loves me.
Answer: he has spoken of it as particularly to you as to anyone in the world.
3. I can’t do it that way round, starting with his love for me. If I could love him, I would be able to believe he has pleasure in me.
Answer: That’s a preposterous way to rob God of his honour! The Holy Spirit tells us ‘This is love: not that we love God but that He loved us’ first.
So drop your objections and believe that God loves you. And to help you enjoy it, think what a privilege this is. People are esteemed by the company they keep: it is an honour, for example, to be in the company of royalty and presidents even if you are just one of the servants. Think what honour we have, then, that we stand boldly in the presence of the Father and enjoy his bosom love.
That is Owen’s argument, in his teaching on the communion we have with the Father in love. May we go through that exercise again and again, especially those of us who tend to get stuck in the ‘guilty and unloved’ mindset, and see if we don’t grow emotionally in the process of learning to believe and enjoy, and return (wow!) God’s love.
C Peter WhiteView All Letters