This sermon is part of the sermon series "Discovering God (part one)". See series.
God is love. This is the characteristic of God that we will explore today in our Discovering God series. The fact that God is love means that we have been embraced by a personal God and are able to live under his protective custody now and forevermore. If I were to ask you how many of us believe this, I would guess that just about every hand would go up.
Yet there is a huge difference between affirming a truth like "God is love" with our minds and teaching our hearts to live out of this truth. It has been said that the longest distance in the world is that one foot between our head and our heart.
Fear is the greatest impediment to the love of God.
The emotion that most impedes our experience of the love that God has poured out in our hearts is not hate, but fear.
Somehow, I grew up as a fearful child. Transitions around the middle school years were traumatic for me. Going from the familiarity of elementary school to the increased size and diversity of middle school overwhelmed my emotions. I feared failure on many fronts. Whether it was academics, athletics, or simply holding on to friends, I was anxious to the point of worrying myself sick. Fortunately, it was probably these very circumstances that made me open to the message of the good news that God was madly in love with me. I discovered this truth at a weekend church retreat in 7th grade and had an overwhelming encounter with this God of love.
But for whatever reason I was not able to live into this truth. Throughout my teenage years and well into my mid-adult years, I battled with static in my stomach. I often sensed a wall of defensiveness between myself and my environment that said, "This world is not a safe place to be." When I encountered authority figures that I admired and wanted to impress, I felt self-conscious and frankly inferior in their presence. The intensity of these feelings of fear and anxiety would rise and fall over the years but would never be completely overcome by the love of God.
Finally, mid-life circumstances conspired to make my future in ministry feel very much up in the air. Try as I might to get to a place of confidence that God had my welfare firmly in his hand and under control, I couldn't get my heart to believe it. As much as I consciously pondered, meditated on, and read the Scriptures about God's love for me, my heart told me that I didn't believe it. Fear was blocking my experience of the love of God.
I know the narrative that runs through our spirits is often some form of fear that negates God's love for us. Some of us were raised in homes where God was used to keep us in line ("God is going get you if you misbehave."). Fear was used as a tool for discipline. It lodges in our spirit and is projected upon God. God becomes to us like Santa Claus in "Santa Claus is Coming to Town": "He sees you when you're sleeping; he knows when you're awake; he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake." Is that the kind of God who lurks in your narrative?
Some of us were raised in environments where the ones who we expected to protect us were either not there when we needed them or, even worse, abused us emotionally, physically, or even sexually. We may have felt unsafe throughout our lives and have had a difficult time believing in the center of our being that God not only has our best interest at heart, but can and will actually make that happen.
Others of us are carrying a bag of guilt and shame because we have done things that have violated and betrayed the standards that we thought we held dear. Underneath all guilt and shame is fear of punishment. Adam and Eve hid in the garden from God after eating the forbidden fruit.
Fear is the greatest impediment to the love of God. First John says that perfect love casts out all fear. How can we come to experience the inviting love of God that provides us the safest place in the all the world to be?
The love of Christ transcends fear.
I am going to zero in on one verse that takes us to the center of the heart of God's love for us and is the greatest assault on the fear that can separate us from God. Romans 5:8: "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
If we can move the reality of this verse from our heads to our hearts, we will be living out of the greatest truth there is: God is for us. Let's look at this verse a phrase at a time and then draw some inferences from Paul's insight.
"But God." I call these two words the gospel in a nutshell. It is the great reversal. "But God" contains the entirety of the Good News. Just when we were expecting God to lower the boom on deserving sinners, God interrupts us with his grace. With God it is not a natural "therefore" but a miraculous "nevertheless." The prodigal son comes home after squandering his father's inheritance and depleting family resources. He has essentially said, "Father, I wish you were dead. Now give me my inheritance ahead of time." But when things don't work out for him, he comes home with his tail between his legs and plans to say to his father, "I have sinned against heaven and before you." He was certainly expecting that his father would lower the boom. Yet we read, "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him, and kissed him" (Luke 15:20).
In the first part of Ephesians 2, Paul lays out his indictment against the sinfulness of humanity before a holy God. If you were to read only through verse 3, you would think it was all over for humanity. The game's up. We are done for. Let me rewrite this section with a liturgical twist:
You were dead in your trespasses and sins, but God …
You followed the ways of the world, but God …
You gratified the cravings of your sinful nature, but God …
You followed its desires and thoughts, but God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-4).
"But God demonstrates his own love for us." Where do we see the love of God demonstrated and put on public display? God's love is not a hidden love, written only in secret love notes and poems. Paul says that God demonstrates, commends, expresses, and even proves his own love for us. So where do we look to see without question that there is a God who loves us?
"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this …. Christ died for us." The demonstration of God's love is the Cross. John's message is the same: "This is how God showed his love …. Not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:9-10).
Author and speaker Brennan Manning tells a moving story that illustrates the Cross as the expression of the love of God. It was 1989, and he had just completed a weekend speaking engagement where he had wowed the crowds, but he felt empty inside compared to the kind of life he was commending to his hearers. He decided to visit his adopted mother, as he regularly did.
To understand what this 87-year-old woman meant to Manning, we have to go back to Pusan, Korea, 1952. At midnight two best friends, Richard Manning (as Manning was known then) and Ray Brennan, were side by side in a Korean foxhole awaiting their orders. They were casually eating chocolate bars when a hand grenade landed next to Ray Brennan. Manning recalls that his friend casually tossed aside his candy wrapper, threw his body on the grenade, and winked lovingly at his best friend before the grenade exploded under him.
Eight years later, when it came time for Richard Manning to enter the Franciscan priesthood, he adopted a new name, as was the custom at ordination. Because of the sacrifice of his best friend, he took the name Brennan as his first name, thus he became Brennan Manning. He hoped he could live as sacrificially as his friend had.
Back to 1989: The woman Brennan Manning went to see after that speaking engagement was Mrs. Brennan, Ray's mom. Mrs. Brennan and Brennan Manning were reminiscing after dinner about the crazy things Ray and Manning had done together, but Manning couldn't shake his depression, so he asked his adopted mom, "Hey, Ma. Do you think that Ray loved me?" Mrs. Brennan's first reaction was to laugh, thinking that Manning must be joking. "Richie, you are such a kidder," she said. "You say the craziest things. You are always fooling around, and you should be serious." Manning said, "I am serious."
Then Brennan Manning said he saw anger in her eyes. Mrs. Brennan said, "Don't you ever talk to me like that again. Don't you ever talk to me about my Raymond like that! Stop making fun of me!" Then she simply exploded, "What more could he have done for you?! What more could he have done for you?!" Her explosion then turned to quiet understanding, "It's all right Richie. We all need a little reassurance now and then."
"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Greater love has no God than this, that he lay down his life for us. What more could he have done for you and me?
Paul ratchets up the cost all the more: "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Paul says it is one thing, perhaps, to die for a friend or a good person, as rare as that may be, but no one dies for their enemies. But while we were in a state of sin, mortal enemies of God, Christ died for us. When we cared not a whit that there was a God in heaven, he had decided to give his life for us. When we were in full rebellion against the authority of God and were asserting our independence from him, that's when God demonstrated his love for us. So unusual is this love that the New Testament writers had to use a word for love that was essentially unknown. Every other kind of love is reliant on the worthiness of the recipient. There is eros, which is simply the love of attraction; there is storge, the love of family; there is philia, brotherly love, but Paul chooses a word that would have been strange to the students of classical Greek: agape. This kind of love is not determined by the worthiness of the recipient but by the nature of the donor. God loves us for the simple reason that he is a generous giver.
I find this truth liberating. Look at it this way, God knew everything about you and me. He saw our capacity for selfishness; he knew ahead of time the callousness that exists in our hearts; he knew that we were capable of doing the unthinkable; he saw those messages that go through our minds about other people. In other words, there is never anything we are going to discover about ourselves that God has not already taken into account. There is nothing we are going to come across as we uncover our inner darkness about which God will say, slapping his forehead, "Ah, if I had known that about you, I would never have given my life for you!" No, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
The love of God is unconditional.
This allows us to get to the root of some of things that confound us, because there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Denial is simply our fear speaking. Because of this I take exception with a theology that says that in our sin we are scum. As much as I love the hymn "Amazing Grace," I wince when we sing, "Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me." We are surely capable of wretched things. But I believe the message of God's love for us is not that we are worthless wretches, but rather that we are unworthy. There is a big difference between being unworthy and being worthless. In fact, by Jesus' death on our behalf, God says that we are worth the life of his Son.
Scripture goes so far as to say that God has provided an eternal inheritance for himself, and it is us. In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul writes, "I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order you may know … the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints" (Ephesians 1:18). What God has bequeathed to himself for all of eternity, his prize and treasure, are the people that he has purchased with Christ's own blood. Unworthy, yes; worthless, no!
J. I. Packer says that by Christ identifying himself with our welfare, God has conditioned his happiness upon ours. All of us as parents know that we cannot be truly free and happy until our children are safely home and their welfare secure. This is the way Packer so eloquently states it: "[God] will not know perfect and unmixed happiness until he has brought every one of us to heaven. He has in effect resolved that henceforth for all eternity his happiness shall be conditional upon ours. Thus God saves not only for his glory, but also for his gladness."
All of what we have considered here about the nature and extent of the love of God is an assault on the fear that can block the presence of God's love to our hearts. In a later section in 1 John 4, John goes right after the fear that robs us of the peace of God's love: "God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the Day of Judgment …. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment" (1 John 4:16-18).
As I said earlier in this message, as clear as the demonstration of God's love is, breaking through the anxiety that was riddling my life was my barrier to knowing it deeply. At the time of my deepest wrestling with anxiety in early 1986, the church where I served had a visiting missionary from Beirut, Lebanon. You might recall that there was a full blown civil war going on in Lebanon in the mid-80s, to the extent that Beirut, known as the Paris of the Middle East, had become pock marked with bullet holes and debris from hollowed out buildings. Since the missionary was heading back to Beirut, I asked him a question that, I can see now, was simply a projection of my own fears. I said to him, "Is it safe to go back there?" He looked at me with a penetrating gaze, paused, and then, while tapping his breastbone, said, "It is safe in here." I believed him. I knew in that moment he was experiencing something that was foreign to me. For me, it was not safe in here.
My walk toward experiencing the love of God in a deeper, freer way entailed my doing the hardest thing that I had ever done. I had to admit as a pastor that I wasn't living in the reality of the grace and peace of God. My first step to connect my head with my heart was to go to a couple of confidantes and admit to them that I was powerless over my own anxiety. Whatever image I needed to project of having it all together needed to be shattered. It is tiring to pretend. It was in my admission of need to others and their intercessory prayer for me that I faced this fear and asked the Lord to touch me in those deepest places that I could not get to myself.
Whether it is the fear of aging or fear about our ability to cover the mortgage or fear about the culture's influence on our children, we can find that safe place in here. There is something about voicing those fears, externalizing them, and then inviting God to touch us in our deepest places that allows us to get to the point where we can say, "It is safe in here."
I am compelled to conclude with a paragraph from J. I. Packer's chapter "The Love of God" from his classic, Knowing God. These words have become my regular companion since 1986, when the healing of my heart began, and my life started to unfold as a flower before God's sunlight. I have put the passage in the first person so that we can apply the message of the love of God to ourselves:
As a believer, I find in the Cross of Christ assurance that I, as an individual, am beloved of God; "the Son of God … loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). Knowing this, I am able to apply to myself the promise that all things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). Not just some things, but all things. Every single thing that happens to me expresses God's love for me and comes to me for the furthering of God's purposes for me. Thus, so far as I am concerned, God is love to me—holy, omnipotent love—at every moment and in every event of every day's life. Even when I cannot see the why and the wherefore of God's dealings, I know that there is love in and behind them, and so I can rejoice always, even when, humanly speaking, things are going wrong. I know that the true story of my life, when known, will prove to be, as the hymn says, "mercy from first to last"—and I am content.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.