Following this dialogue has got me to thinking about the love of God. I am asking myself some questions:
If I can’t believe that God loves me, how will I ever convince an unsaved person that He loves them?
Is it even up to me to make them believe that He loves them? God’s “love” is not the same love that we have for our fellow humans. (For an excellent exposition of “Agape” vs “Phileo” love, see one of Adam’s comments on William’s post.)
How can I prove God's love to persons who are as yet unaware of their true standing before a holy and righteous God?
How can I argue against the reality of sin and suffering in trying to prove that God is loving, when He is able, in His sovereignty, to stop suffering in the world?
In my musing, I was reminded of a situation in my life several years ago. My brother had a son with a girl (I’ll call her Becky). She and my brother did not stay together, and she eventually moved to another city, and became engaged to another man. This little boy (let’s call him Toby) was diagnosed with Leukemia. He began treatments, and many complications ensued, keeping him in hospital for several months. Becky was with him night and day during that time.
I had lost contact with Becky, but started talking to her regularly after I found out about Toby’s illness. He was 5 years old. It was all very difficult and sad. I brought these needs to my church at prayer meetings, and we prayed diligently for him. Several times he was gravely ill, with hemorrhaging, strokes, pneumonia. But he pulled through. We thanked God for bringing him through these crisis. Becky was encouraged, and kept a Bible on Toby’s nightstand. She prayed along with everyone else, and believed God would heal her little boy. (I should add that Becky was not a believer).
Days after his 6th birthday, Toby became well enough that the doctor was allowing him to go home on a pass on the upcoming weekend. Needless to say, all involved were elated. He really was doing better. Becky took a picture of him sitting in a wheelchair and drawing that same day.
Late that night, as Becky was in the hospital room with him, Toby suddenly started to hemorrhage from his nose and mouth. Becky yelled for help, and medical staff worked frantically to save him. All in vain. He bled to death, in front of his mother, his eyes wide with fear as he stared and her, beseeching her to help. This is the last memory she has of him alive.
In the months following his death, Becky and her fiancé moved back to my city. I began visiting her regularly. It came to light that many errors had been made in Toby’s treatment. Becky became consumed with the details surrounding his death, and went through agonies of regret that she had not moved him to another hospital.
In all my visits to her, she confronted me with questions. I am sure you can guess what they were. How could a God of love take a little boy? Why did he bring him through all those times, only to let him die in the end? Why did he let the doctors make so many errors? And guess what? I didn’t know how to answer them.
Becky’s only consolation was that she believed she would see Toby in heaven some day. She asked me what heaven was like. Would Toby be happy there? Would he be missing her as much as she missed him? Her grief knew no bounds, as we can all imagine.
During these months, my church was doing an “outreach” program. It consisted of bringing unsaved people into the church to watch a video and have a discussion around Christianity (no it wasn’t the Alpha Course). The videos were very good in explaining the gospel, including the reality of our sin and need for forgiveness. I asked Becky if she would like to watch the videos, and she agreed. So for many weeks I borrowed the video from church, watched it with her at her apartment, then returned it the following Sunday.
Of course, in hindshight, I realize how ridiculous it was for me to do that. She was in the throes of mourning. She needed to be allowed to grieve. She was still in a state of emotional shock. Her pain was so great, it overwhelmed her mind and her emotions. She was in no position to give thoughtful attention to a series of videos on Christianity. They didn’t explain to her why her little boy was dead.
It's not that I didn't support her in other more practical ways, and just "be there" while she expressed the many painful emotions that she was experiencing. But I did feel a certain pressure to show to her, shomehow, what the love of God really means. I wanted her to see the reality of sin, its consequences, and God’s remedy in Christ. All well intentioned, but foolishly ill-timed.
OK, all this to say that when it comes to “proving” to unsaved persons that God loves them, we are always going to end up presenting a false “God” if we rely on anything but the Cross of Christ to be that proof. If we try to point out His “temporal” blessings, such as providing their needs, keeping them safe, healing their diseases, they will soon come up with ways to prove that in fact He musn’t love them, as so many tragic things are happening. If not to them, then to many, many people in the world. How could this God love people if He allows such suffering?
The title of this blog comes from a bumper sticker that I have seen around town. Whenever I see it, I am irritated; it proclaims a half truth. It needs to say “God loves you, but He is very angry with you because of your sin”, or “God loves you, because” and then a picture of the cross. (Not that I think bumper stickers are a particularly effective way of bringing the message of the gospel).
It seems to me that the best proof of the love of God to unsaved persons is in the Cross. Jesus, as He ministered to people, was kind and loving. Yet for those that came to faith in Him, it was the reality of their sin that brought them there. It was realizing that He was the Pearl of Great Price, worth more than anything this life had to offer, be it riches, comfort, good health or success. It was knowing that Jesus Christ could heal their sick soul, and that was the most urgent need of healing that they had.
Faith in Christ brings about a new perspective; one that is focused on eternity more than on this earthly life. It is only the made alive spiritual man that can understand these things. Otherwise, they are foolishness. Our natural tendency is to have a man-centered theology; a “Me-ology”, putting ourselves in the place of greatest importance; our comfort, our needs, our “happiness” in this life. But scripture gives much credence to the ultimate importance of eternal things. It also re-directs our attention to God as the Supreme Being, and ourselves as His much-less-than-perfect creation.
I see much nowadays in the realm of “Spirituality” that offers a false “God”. It is a god who lives to meet our needs, who loves us like a kind old grandfather, or magical Santa Claus. And when bad things happen? Well, I guess this god just couldn’t quite prevent them, so he likely feels real sorry for us, and so should we, for ourselves. It is a weak, powerless, less than holy god, whose time is spent in trying to prove his “love” to spoiled, self-centred creatures. He does not demand repentance, or obedience, or sacrifice, but lives to bring “happiness” and self-fulfillment. Truly a god of our imagination.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t exhibit the love of Christ to others. There is a patient, compassionate, condescension in the way our Creator views us. Along with the wrath that hangs over our heads, there is a desire on His part that none should perish (2Peter 3:9). Scripture does say that it is His kindness that leads us to repentence:
“Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)
I struggle with this issue a lot. I want to tell people that God loves them. But when they ask me to “prove it”, I know I am in for a debate, unless the Holy Spirit has made ready their heart to hear the good news of forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Any thoughts out there??