"How Can I Know for Sure God Loves Me?"
Psalm 103 / various January 8, 2006
A wealthy old man had just recently married a lovely young lady. However he was beginning to wonder whether she might have married him just for his money. He asked her, "If I lost all my money, would you still love me?" She said reassuringly, "Oh honey, don't be silly. Of course I would still love you...and I would miss you terribly." (!)
In contrast to such fickle and conditional human love, God's love is enduring and steadfast. His love for us isn't based on our money or merit, but pure grace, His sovereign and free delight in us as His creatures. Our souls are designed to be satisfied by such great, unconditional love.
Dr Elizabeth Kubler-Ross observes, "I've never met a person whose greatest need was anything other than real, unconditional love. There is no mistaking love. You feel it in your heart. It is the common fibre of life, the flame that heats our soul, energizes our spirit, and supplies passion to our lives. It is our connection to God and to each other."
Over the next few weeks we'll be looking at "Loving Relationships". Love is an action verb, it takes an object. There are basically 3 parties in relationships, spiritually speaking - God, ourselves, and others. Before we look at our love for God and our love for others, we'll start by looking at God's love for us, because His love is the original, our model or template; and His love empowers our love in turn, it's our source. "We love because He first loved us." (1Jn 4:19) But on what basis can we say this? How can we really know for sure that God loves us?
Love is the Essence of God's Nature
To begin, it's the essence of God's nature to love; loving is characteristic of the Lord. Before the universe even existed, love was happening within God's three-fold personality. Jesus prays in John 17(24), "Father...you loved me before the creation of the world." At His baptism and transfiguration we hear the Father's voice from heaven describing Jesus as "My Son, whom I love" (Mt 3:17; 17:5). Jesus states He will keep on making the Father known SO THAT the love the Father has for the Son may be IN His disciples (Jn 17:26). Christian fellowship is intended to be an extension of the very love that's beating non-stop at the heart of the Trinity since before time began.
Writing later to the church, the apostle John said simply that God IS love: love comes from God; whoever doesn't love doesn't know God, because God IS love (1Jn 4:7f). In case we missed it, a few verses later he adds, "God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him." (1Jo 4:16) Love is God's very essence, He's soaked through with it.
If God were to hand you his business card, you would notice right away that "love" is part of His name, it in part defines who He is. Love is at the core of God's self-description. Back in Exodus 33 when Moses prays to be shown God's glory, God promises to cause all His goodness to pass before Moses while proclaiming His name. In 34:6-7 God announces Himself in these words: "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin...." We see love reflected several times in these few short phrases. These are echoed throughout the Old Testament as kind of an anchor of the covenant a merciful God has made with the nation of Israel. (Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2) In several of these places, the context is the people's rebellion and need to repent from sin. Especially when they were not deserving - when they had failed God and let down their side of the agreement - they still had recourse by appealing to His loving, compassionate nature.
Loved Along with the World
In a general sense, we are loved along with the rest of the whole world, in the sense of God's grace being made available to every person that's ever lived (1Jn 2:22). Even at sports events, John 3:16 placards remind us that "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son..." The cross of Jesus only makes sense when understood to be an attempt by God to reconcile a hostile planet of sinners to Himself; else it could only be construed as a giant blunder on the part of a sovereign God.
God's love for the world - for every person - is seen in the cross. 1Jn 4(9) says, "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him." V10 defines love as God sending His Son "as an atoning sacrifice for our sins". Paul states, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Ro 5:8) The cross is the billboard broadcasting far and wide the message that God loves us sacrificially.
God's love is unconditional, not based on our merit or worthiness or deserving of it; note, Christ died for us "while we were still sinners". Moses notes Israel became a recipient of God's covenant favour not because they were the most numerous nation; in fact, they were about the fewest in number (Deut 7:7). Later, the disobedient nation was compared in Ezekiel 16(5f) to an unwanted baby, unwashed, uncared for, umbilical cord not even cut, "thrown out into the open field; for on the day you were born you were despised." What a sad picture! What a desperate, helpless state!
God says, "then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, 'Live!'" It's solely God's intervention and merciful choice that saves us.
The prophet Hosea offers another word picture of covenant love. Here in chapter 11(1-4) we see human rebellion and ignorance offset by God's persistent nurture and patient caring. "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them." If you've ever had to deal with a toddler having a temper tantrum, or balking in the "terrible twos", you can in some small way relate to God's enduring love drawing the Israelites to His ways, taking them by the arms and directing them.
God's love manifested is a response of His compassion and mercy to our need. Perhaps, like us, you have some bird feeders out this winter and find delight in watching the birds that come to eat (when the squirrels aren't gorging themselves!). Jesus pointed out that though sparrows were sold for less than half a penny each, "Yet not one of them is forgotten by God...Don't be afraid [He added]; you are worth more than many sparrows." He said the very hairs of our head are all numbered (Lk 12:6f). In Luke 15 He used parables to compare God's joy over repentant sinners to a shepherd so concerned for 1 wandering lost sheep that he leaves 99 in the open country to go look for it. Or a father so overjoyed by a prodigal son's return that he is filled with compassion for him, runs to meet him, throws his arms around him, kisses him, and throws a banquet to celebrate. The prodigal's carefully prepared "no longer worthy to be called your son" speech is completely ignored. God loves the world, despite all its lostness.
Loved on Account of the "Fathers"
The people of Israel, special objects of God's favour under the Old Covenant, were loved on account of their forefathers; and this is extended to those who believe in Christ in the New Covenant. Moses says they became God's Chosen People "because He loved your forefathers and chose their descendants after them" (Deut 4:37). God delighted in Abraham and Isaac and Jacob so much that He promised to look after and multiply their offspring. "The LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today." (De 10:15) God is a faithful God, responsible, keeping His promises, so He followed through on His covenant with the patriarchs. He was "as good as His word".
After the coming of Jesus the Messiah and His rejection by the Jewish leaders of the time, the church became the "new Israel" and sensed God's blessing was being directed to it as His new covenant people, both Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles). The apostle Paul maintained those who believe are children of Abraham (Gal 3:7); Abraham is the "father of all who believe but have not been circumcised"; Abraham's offspring include those who are of the faith of Abraham - "He is the father of us all." (Rom 4:11,16) This was all in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus (Gal 3:14).
You can see how the legacy of God's special favour and protection is being re-directed from a physical, hereditary basis to a spiritual, voluntary one; it's by belief, not begetting; by faith, not who's your earthly father. Hosea prophesies God speaking, "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion...I will show my love to the one I called 'Not my loved one. 'I will say to those called 'Not my people, "You are my people'; and they will say, 'You are my God.'"" (Ho 2:19,23)
We can sense a focusing or narrowing-in of the emphasis of God's love to those who follow in the footsteps of Abraham by making covenant with Him, who willingly accept God's leading and ownership in their personal life. Those who say, "I am Yours; I acknowledge You to be my God." Those selected on account of the fathers, that is, espousing the same grace that was offered Abraham, Isaac, and tricky-Dick Jacob.
One day a friend asked a father of four, "Why do you love your kids?" The father thought for a minute, but the only answer he could come up with was, "Because they're mine." The children had no need to do anything to prove themselves to this father. He took them just as they were. So, God loves us as we are, because we're His, He is our "Father".
1Jn 3(1) marvels, "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" Another father was tucking in his 6-year-old son for the night. The father asked him, "Son, when does Daddy love you the most? When you've been fighting with your sister and getting into a lot of trouble? Or when you've been real helpful to Mommy and real nice to everyone?" The son thought for a moment and then said, "Both times!" The father replied, "Right! And do you know why?" The boy answered, "'Cause I'm your special guy." That was his dad's pet name for him, "Daddy's Special Guy". The boy knew his father loved him, no matter what, because he was "Daddy's special guy."
That's the same with God's covenant love for us. He loves us unconditionally because through faith's adoption we're His "special guys".
Loved "In Christ"
Earlier we talked about the love that circulated within the Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - from all eternity. It's just part of God's nature to love; God didn't have a NEED to create angels and humans and all kinds of animals to love, for there was already loving going on within the Godhead. But Paul in the early verses of Ephesians makes a startling revelation. "For [God the Father] chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-- to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves." (Eph 1:4-6) The apostle's asserting was loving us in Jesus before time began - choosing us, adopting us, planning for us to His sons and daughters. Paul adds in vv13f how this incorporation into Christ took effect when we believed the gospel: "And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth...Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit" signifying "those who are God's possession" (Eph 1:13f) So we're not only loved by God in general as part of the world; we're not only loved by God on account of Abraham, the father of all who believe; we're also loved by the Father because we're "in Christ", part of the body of Jesus, who has been receiving and giving love since before the creation of the world. God's Spirit now dwells in us and marks us as belonging to Him, His possession because we acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
While God's love is unconditional, remaining or abiding in His love does involve our ongoing connection and responsiveness to Christ. Jesus said in John 14(21,23) that "He who loves Me [as evidenced by obeying Jesus' commands] will be loved by my Father"; He added, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." What a beautiful word picture: the Father and Son "making their home" with us!
In John 16(27) Jesus says the Father Himself loves us "because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God." The Father does respond to our love and commitment. Proverbs (15:9) says God "loves those who pursue righteousness"; and (3:12), "the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in." So while God's love is unconditional, it's not to be taken for granted or presumed upon. His love calls forth from us the very best, stimulating growth and obedience as we develop in Christ's holiness and maturity.
Because we are loved "in Christ", the Bible offers a reassuring guarantee that no matter what disaster may come, nothing can separate us from God's love. Romans 8(37) asserts that in trouble, hardship, danger, and so forth, we are "more than conquerors through Him who loved us". And Paul is convinced that "neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,...nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Because we are loved in Christ, God offers this rock-solid assurance in His word that He will always be there for us, helping us weather whatever storms may try our faith until we find ourselves safe at last in His heavenly Kingdom. That's good to know!
The Mystery of God's Sovereign Choice
Now, although we're told God loves the world, that doesn't mean all people will be saved or are "chosen" or "elect". There is a mystery involved in determining who are finally the effective recipients of God's love in full measure. Paul cites Malachi's reference to Jacob and Esau as an example: "Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad-- in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls-- [Rebekah] was told, "The older will serve the younger." Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."" (Ro 9:11-13) God has a purpose in election - far greater than that of our political parties! Earlier Paul said that those who love God "have been called according to His purpose" (Rom 8:28) - a purpose which involves conforming believers to Jesus' likeness, so that He "might be the firstborn among many brothers" (8:29). The "many" sadly does not automatically include "everybody": perhaps here there's something about creaturely freedom that would be distorted, if everybody were to be saved. No human deserves to go to heaven; the Holy, Almighty Creator is perfectly justified in His judgment. The Potter has every right to do as He pleases with the lumps of clay (Rom 9:21f; Jer 18:4). But God in loving-kindness and mercy has saved some "in accordance with His pleasure and will, to the praise of His glorious grace which He has freely given us" (Eph 1:5f). God's rescue is not automatic or to be taken for granted, hence all the more wonderful a privilege.
How great a wonder it is, that God should give His Son in exchange for us sinners. It's all because God loves us. Isaiah 43(4) says, "Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life." Because we're precious to the Father, dearly loved, He sent His own beloved Son to suffer and die so our debt could be paid, our guilt removed. As the Psalmist (103) says, the Lord "forgives all your sins...He does not treat us as our sins deserve...For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him: as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us."
This I Know
How can we know for sure God loves us? Because He says in Scripture that He loves the world; He befriends those who share the faith of Abraham, "the friend of God"; and He loves those who love and trust in His Son. That God should love any of us sinners is both mystery and marvel.
Karl Barth was likely the most famous theologian of the 20th century. He was once asked, "What is the greatest thought you ever had?" He answered, "Jesus loves me - this I know, for the Bible tells me so." God's promises in His word give us simple, basic assurance of His love for us.
Let's ponder in closing these words from another famous theologian, JI Packer: "What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it - that He knows me. I am graven on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him because He first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when His care falters. This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort...in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion Him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench His determination to bless me." Let's pray.