The fact that God loves us is an integral part of Christianity. We love to say "God loves you." We get fed it from the pulpit on Sunday. We hear it in our songs and stories. And we feel the need to pour it out on other people, specifically non-Christians.
I can't help but wonder, though, what people hear when they're coming from a background that has changed the definition of love. In a culture that's gone as crazy as ours, do people even understand what we're trying to say? With that in mind, I think it might be good to clarify some definitions.
God's Love is Sacrificial – This is the very essence of God's love. John 3:16 says God gave His Son up because of His great love for us. The gospels are the story of God's sacrifice, sending His Son to Earth as a baby Who then grew up, died to make a way to Heaven for us, and rose again, breaking the power of death.
If we are called to be like God, then our love should be sacrificial. Ephesians 5 talks about Christ sacrificing himself for the church in two places, verse 2 and verse 25. The latter instructs husbands to give themselves up for their wives, as Christ did. In John 15:12-13, we're told that laying down our lives is the highest sign of love.
God's Love is More Than Just a Feeling – Our culture has both overly sexualized everything and severely warped the meaning of love. We're told that love is intense feelings. If those feelings go away, then maybe we don't love each other anymore. God's love is so much more than a feeling. If you study the history of God's interaction with Mankind, you will quickly realize that humans are ridiculous and that God has incredible patience.
The Israelites, God's Chosen People, rebelled against Him more times than I can think of. He'd give them good things, perform miracles, provide them with all they needed, and then they'd get bored and turn away. Yet God never said, "Fine, I'm completely finished with you." He let them feel the consequences of their actions, certainly, but He always called them back to Himself. If I was God, I'm quite sure that my love would have run out on them. But that's not God. He doesn't rely on how He's feeling. He loves His people, and He will continue to love us forever.
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God's Love is Just – Sometimes, when we love someone, it's really tempting to let them get away with things because it hurts us to punish them. I imagine God hurts on a regular basis, seeing us hurt ourselves by choosing other things than Him. Romans 6:23 says that, "the wages of sin is death." That means that, without Jesus' blood to wash away our sins, we will die. Hebrews 10:30 says that it's God's job to avenge, not ours, and He will mete out punishment for people's sins. That is justice, getting what we deserve. God is perfect and just. Yet He is also love, meaning that the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, God's love and His justice cannot be separated.
Love is not letting someone get away with bad behavior. Sometimes it's tempting to think that, because it's painful on both sides to punish someone. But that goes back to the point above. We can't let our feelings dictate our perception of love. True love looks at the big picture and says, "This behavior will hurt this person I love and separate them from God. I don't want them to suffer that separation." So, then, God-like love punishes sin.
God's Love is Grace – The very important flipside is that God extends grace to us. We deserve death because we aren't perfect and regularly sin against our perfect Creator. Yet He chose to sacrifice His Son, Jesus, Who was Himself perfect (being God), to satisfy His justice. Through Jesus' death (paying the penalty for sin) and resurrection (breaking death's hold), we can then receive grace. We don't deserve it.
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Studying history teaches us that God's love is more than just feelings, but it also shows us how often God extends grace. The Israelites rebelled a ridiculous number of times, yet God always saved them when they repented. I've made plenty of bad decisions that rebel against God. By the very nature of Who He is, He has every right to punish me for those decisions with death. That's what I deserve. But He shows me grace.
I should be like that toward others. Yes, it's important to punish sins. But it's also important to extend grace, showing kindness instead of anger when someone wrongs me. That is Christ-like, and that's how I want to be.
God's Love Never Ends – This is related in part to the point about feelings. When we base our love for people on how they make us feel, we will inevitably have days where they don't make us feel so great. Does that mean our love for them ends? This is a tricky subject, because there are a lot of ways this can be taken wrongly. I'm not saying that one should stay in a relationship where someone makes you feel badly just because your love for them isn't supposed to end. There are different levels of love, and I don't think staying in an abusive relationship, particularly, is loving toward yourself or the other person. Staying validates the other person's behavior, which negates the justice point from above.
Anyway, it is important to realize that God's love doesn't falter. He may punish us for wrongdoing, but that doesn't mean He's stopped loving us. Parents know this. You punish your child because you love him, not because you've stopped. God never stops loving us. You can love someone even as he drives himself ever deeper into sin. That doesn't mean you should enable him, and God certainly doesn't do that for us. But God loves us, regardless of how far we go. Someone may never turn around and choose Him. God would send that person to hell for their sins, but I don't think His love would stop. Which must break His heart. 1 Corinthians 13 says that "love never fails." I want to be a person whose love is constant, like God's.
God's love is so much more than what we consider as love. We associate love so strongly with feelings, yet God's love, the standard for love, is far beyond feelings. I don't think our culture really understands that. Consequently, people probably don't get what we mean when we talk about God's love. It's important to be aware of that when we're talking to people. Sometimes we need to be more deliberate about our definitions.