Friday, March 9, 2018

The Irony of God's Love

by Nicky Smith

Through life we all develop a void within us. At the root of this void is a desire to be loved. Everyone wants love and in fact, we all need love. We are made this way. However, the only way to fill this void permanently in us is through obtaining the love of God. 

While some live their lives unaware of this void, many may sense that there is an emptiness that needs to be filled, but few know how to fill it. When we do not know how to fill the void through obtaining God's love, we turn to others around us to help fill us with love. However, when we turn to others or the world, we are filling our void through artificial means. These ways may include such things as wanting others to accept us and our life decisions, or wanting others to stroke our ego (expressing how beautiful, smart, or accomplished we are). Some seek to fill the void by accumulating material possessions or constantly seeking for better job opportunities hoping their accomplishments will help them feel fulfilled. Others try fill the void through artificial versions of intimacy. Some try to control their environment or the people around them in order to fill the hole inside. Others abuse substances or food to fill them. We may also seek to fill it through feeling loved and accepted in various good God-given relationships, whether it be a parent, child, or spouse. You can become aware of this void if the relationship is overly intense or if you feel like you follow them about emotionally like a puppy dog, where their love and acceptance creates happiness in you and their lack of love and acceptance leads to you feeling empty and insecure. I'm suggesting there is a difference between needing another's love and being grateful that another loves us. Although feeling loved by another is a good thing, needing another's love and acceptance to fulfill us is not good, because it is never enough to replace the love of God in us.

Almost everyone uses at least one of these things as a replacement for feeling God's love and acceptance of us, but after getting a "fix" and feeling loved, accepted, or understood, the void slowly reappears and again we are left feeling worthless, unloved, lonely, misunderstood, unaccepted, insecure in relationships and about our life choices, and so on. When we turn to the world and those around us to fill the void, the void is only filled temporarily. Counterfeit versions of love and acceptance never fill the inner need we have for God's love for very long. Furthermore, they act as a replacement of God's love and when we are seeking after these things, we are not seeking after God's love and acceptance as fully as we should. However, when we have obtained God's love and acceptance, we will not feel lonely, misunderstood, and insecure, because God's love for us fills our void and the lack of love and understanding of those around us do not compete. 

God is Love
God's love manifested in many, many ways. Some of the more commonly understood and accepted manifestations of his love is through receiving counsel and truth. Other times we may obtain comfort from God. Sometimes we may feel the abundance of his love. I have felt it on a few occasions. The feeling of God's love for us is something that is beyond description. It is far more than any love you might feel from another person. 

God's supreme characteristic is love (1 John 4:7-8). I have come to learn that everything he does and allows us to experience is an expression of his incredible love for us. In fact, everything he does and allows is evidence of the greatest amount of love he has for us. Any deviation from what he does for us would be less love than that. This is why God is love. 

Now, John wrote that the more we come to know God, the more we can feel God's love. 
7 Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.
8 He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
9 In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. (1 John 4; emphasis added)
John also explained that we come to know God through becoming more like him. Thus, the more we become like God, the more we can feel of his love. 
4 He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
5 But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him. 
15 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2; emphasis added)
Eventually we can get to the point where we are filled with his love and we know we are accepted by him. This is not just for a moment in time, but something that fills us and stays with us. It permanently fills the void we feel in us (unless we sin or move away from God's will, whereby we will feel that emptiness in whatever way it manifests again). However, prior to this point, as we follow the narrow path into his presence, God in his grace and mercy allows us to periodically feel of this love, until we can one day be filled with it. 

The Irony
There is irony in God's love. Irony is something that occurs in the opposite way in which you would expect. God's love is ironic because it often occurs in the opposite way in which you would expect or even desire. One very important aspect of God's love that is often forgotten is his chastening. Paul wrote:
5 And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him:
For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.
7 If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?
8 But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. (Hebrews 12; emphasis added; see also Proverbs 3:11-13)
Each of us have weaknesses and struggles which prevent us from having a pure heart. These things separate us from God. God desperately wants us to be able to abide in his presence, but we have to have a pure heart and clean hands (see Matthew 5:8; Psalm 24:4; Isaiah 59:2). John said that our fellowship with Christ can only happen as we walk in the light, being cleansed of all sin. (See this post on walking in the light.) Walking the narrow path always involves rooting out our sins, weaknesses, and false beliefs and this is almost always painful and involves suffering. 

God helps us with this process of becoming pure through chastening. This chastening takes on various forms: Sometimes it is through his words, while other times it is through the experiences he allows us to have. Through his chastisement, he aims to help us remove the spiritual disease that exists in us so that we can comfortably and confidently be in his presence. This chastisement is mostly always painful, just as performing surgery to remove a cancer would be painful and unpleasant. It is aimed at helping us see things as they are and develop humility, and uproot the false beliefs and weaknesses in us. (See this post on uprooting our weaknesses and false beliefs through developing humility.)

Some may proclaim that God would never intentionally do anything to hurt us, but I propose that God allows us to feel pain so that we can get rid of anything that is a stumbling block in our way to come back into his presence. Thus, every single difficult experience we have is God helping us overcome something preventing us from being in his presence. Think of Christ asking the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions. He didn't want to remove that part of his heart that was filled with the love of riches, but Christ asking him to get rid of his riches was Christ's way of loving him. I have come to learn that love isn't always what we think it is and there are times when an act that can seem unkind is in fact loving. Coming to know God more enables us to better understand what is truly loving and what is not. 

These painful experiences allow us to understand Christ's suffering (see 1 Peter 4:1,13-14). When we have "fellowship with his suffering" (see Philippians 3:10), it is then that we are able to better feel and comprehend God's love for us. In essence, it is through our suffering that we can more fully taste of his love for us. Paul wrote,
8 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,
9 And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:
10 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.
 (Philippians 3; emphasis added)
While the greatest love is manifested when a man lays down his life for another, Jesus' suffering and death is a manifestation of his infinite love for us (John 15:13; John 3:16). John wrote:
6 If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. (1 John 1; emphasis added)
16 Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. (1 John 3; emphasis added)
It is through the laying down of our lives for others (see this post on laying down our lives for others) that we can perceive and understand God's love for us. It is this that gives us fellowship with his suffering. It is then that we experience his love for us to the greatest degree. This is what fills the void each of us have. 

Recently I was led by the Spirit to read Psalm 23. It is such a oft-quoted psalm that I've never paid too much attention to it, but the day I read it, it took on new meaning for me. I was feeling particularly overwhelmed by a difficult experience and as I read this psalm I felt comforted in what the Spirit helped me understand. 
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Jesus is our Shepherd. Like a shepherd who cares for his sheep, Jesus cares so deeply about us. When we allow him to lead us, we can and will get to a point where all our needs are supplied. Any need for love and acceptance is filled by him. 
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He will lead us to a place where we can feel his rest (green pastures) and be filled with his truth (water).
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23)
However, this requires that we follow him along the paths of righteousness. Although these paths lead to our soul being restored (our void filled), these paths also always lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. We cannot walk the paths of righteousness without deep suffering that feels like death, because in fact, through this suffering we are required to die to self (see this post of dying to self).

To many, it would seem unloving to lead someone through the valley of the shadow of death, but it is only through walking through this valley that we can come to know God and his love for us. It is in this valley that we obtain a fellowship with his suffering. 

Another psalm that gives a similar message is Psalm 84. 
5 Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are the ways of them.6 Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools. 
7 They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God. (Psalm 84)
Baca speaks of tears and weeping. In other words, Baca refers to the valley of the shadow of death. As we go through that valley of death, we can choose to allow ourselves to be filled with God's love and truth as we sanctify ourselves in our suffering. The aim is that we turn that valley of death into a valley of learning and the Lord's rest. 

Job Experiencing God's Love
Job is a man who was very righteous, yet God allowed him to suffer. It is safe to say that Job went through the valley of Baca. One might ask why God would allow Job to experience this terrible suffering. I believe it was through his suffering that Job's faith increased to such an extent that he was able to enter the presence of the Lord. 
1 Then Job answered the Lord, and said,
2 I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee.
3 Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.
4 Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.
5 I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.
6 Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42; emphasis added)
It was through Job's trials that he could get to the point where he could be in the Lord's presence. For this reason, when God allowed him to suffer, God was showing Job the greatest possible love he had for him. 

As we willingly walk through the valley of death, experiencing great trials of sorrow and suffering, we can use these experiences to sanctify us, knowing that God allows us to have these specific experiences as a manifestation of his incredible love for us. While some feel abandoned in their suffering, we can know that God is there and completely mindful of us. As we go through these experiences (and especially as we offer our lives as a sacrifice to God and others) and become sanctified, we can be filled with God's love. This love fills the emptiness each of us feel at times. We then no longer have the need to try fill the void by seeking love and acceptance from others. Although being loved by others is always a blessing, it will never fully and permanently fill us and seeking to fill it with anything other than the love of God makes it harder for us to be completed by his love, for it is only God's love for us that completes us.