Friday, January 6, 2023

Feeling God's Love

      If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God, And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

      God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. (1 John 4:15-18, NIV)

I had a conversation recently that I’ve had before. The person I was talking with expressed their doubt that God loved them. They believed that God is love. They just didn’t believe that his love was for them, too. 

     I think this feeling arose from unresolved guilt about some things in their life that they didn’t feel good about.  Whatever the reason, the effect was simply that this person honestly had their doubt about God’s love for them.

     That’s not the first time I’ve had that conversation, and it won’t be the last. It’s a common feeling among many people I’ve talked with over the years — they believe that God may love other people, they even believe that God is love, but they doubt that God could love them. 

     So where in the world does this idea come from? 

     It’s easy to say that guilt is the reason people don’t always believe in God’s love for them. After all, none of us are perfect, are we? All of us have regrets, things we wish we’d done differently, or hadn’t done at all, or had done. And those of us who are mostly likely to know about God’s love through our families or churches or our own study of the Bible are also likely to know about the reality of sin — and its presence in our own lives. “Sure, maybe he loves some people,” we reason. “But not me, not with the things I’ve done.”

     I do think that unresolved guilt — especially over continual struggles with sin or injuries to important relationships — can affect our confidence in God’s love for us. But I don't think that’s the main problem. 

     Most of the time, I think, we don’t believe in God’s love for us simply because we don’t feel God’s love for us. We might know that God is characterized primarily by love. We might have been taught that he loves everyone, even those who aren’t particularly lovable. But we don’t feel it. We don’t feel God’s love for us personally. And because we don’t feel it, we doubt. 

     Especially when we’ve done wrong, or let someone down, or been neglectful in whatever it might be that we think keeps God loving us.

     This is a big problem in our world: we’re used to elevating feelings as the only reliable measure of reality. 

     How often do we hear that we should follow our hearts? Usually, that’s in contrast to our heads — to follow your heart is to do what you feel is right. To go where your emotions take you. I don’t want to discount intuition — but intuition and feeling are not exactly the same thing. I understand that God made us feeling people, and that sometimes the emotional response is the correct one. Feelings can protect you in the moment. They can heighten compassion. They help us connect. What they often can’t do is give us a clear picture of reality. Oh, they’re real to us. But we make a mistake when we think they tell us what’s objectively real and true and genuine.

     Come on; didn’t you have crushes in middle school that you were sure were true love, that you’d be with this person forever? Haven’t you had a person play on your feelings, only to find they were scamming you? Haven’t you had a passionate conviction about the truth of something, only to later find out it wasn’t true at all?

     Love is perhaps, for us, the most intense feeling of all. When people feel love, they can do unimaginable things. They can destroy their families. Destroy their churches. Destroy themselves, and the people unfortunate enough to be in their orbit. And they can do all this perfectly convinced that it’s right, because how can something that feels so right be wrong? 

     And, surely, if God loved us we’d feel it, wouldn’t we?

     There are times in my life I’ve felt God’s love. But the longer I live, the more I’m convinced that those times are the exception, not the rule, for most of us. I even wonder if the times I’ve felt God’s love had more to do with relief and joy and peace and maybe a touch of self-righteousness than any real perception of his love for me.

     For most of my life — and I’ve been in church and around Christians and reading the Bible for around half a century now — I haven’t really felt God’s love. 

     Here’s the thing; I think I’ve come to terms with that. I’m certainly not alone in it; many theologians and practitioners of a Christianity far deeper than mine have said the same.

     I think maybe the problem is that we’ve assumed that God’s love is like ours; characterized by intense feeling.

     Here’s what love is, for God — it’s a settled determination that he will do what we need him to do for us. I suppose God feels warmly about me, at least sometimes. I know the Bible talks about God feeling compassion for human beings. But, probably more often, God’s love is described as “faithfulness.” God is there for us, always. He can be trusted. Counted on. That is, in fact, what faith is — it’s counting on God. It is belief that, whatever else may be true, God will do what we need him to do. He will act in our best interest. 

     This is what the best friendships and strongest marriages become. They don’t depend on warm feelings every moment to make them go. They’re built on trust, confidence, and knowing that you have each others’ backs no matter what. 

     So, I don't think you’re supposed to always feel God’s love for you. Your feelings take you all over the place.

     I think you’re supposed to know God’s love for you. In your mind, and also in your heart. 

     John says that when we put our faith in Jesus, “God lives in [us], and [we] in God.” That’s objective. It is true outside ourselves. And then, John says, “we know and rely on the love God has for us.” He isn’t saying, is he, that we’ll know God’s love through a warm, fuzzy feeling. He says you can know and rely on God’s love for you if you’ve put your faith in Jesus. That’s the gospel, in a sentence. 

     Paul says something in similar in Romans 8. He says, for instance, that we can be confident that God works for the good of those who love him — which he defines as being committed to God’s purposes in the world. He says that God has always intended that human beings be “glorified” through his love. He asks, “if God is for us, who can be against us?” And he affirms that nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God  that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

     God loves you, and you know it’s true because Jesus died and was raised from the dead so that nothing can separate you from God’s love. 

     So — if you’ve put your faith in Jesus — you don’t need to spend an ounce of energy worrying because you don’t feel God’s love. You have something better than your feelings assuring you that he does. You have Jesus. You have the gospel. Nothing can ever separate you from his love. 

     Put your faith in the work of Jesus. Be assured of God’s love. And then go and live out his love. Because, if you’re convinced of God’s love for you, it’ll make you a different person.

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