Sometimes my kids say “I love everybody in the whole world.” Its a nice sentiment, but it isn’t actually true. Love is personal. You can’t love in the abstract. Love is always in the context of a person loving another. My kids can’t really love more than a few dozen people, because that’s who they know personally.
When John tells us that “God loved the world…” he isn’t telling us that God loved them as a large mass of people. God’s love for us is individual. God can love the world, because he can know each of us individually. When God loves you, he doesn’t love you as a generalization about how he deals with several billion people. He knows you personally, and he loves you personally.
At the same time that God’s love is personal and intimate, it is not conditioned on who we are. It is based on who God is, and his choice to love me and you. It is not caused by us or by anything in us. We can’t earn his love, or make him love us more, or make him stop loving us. God loves you because he chooses to love you because he is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy. God’s love for you is personal and intimate and comes from the heart of who God is.
We’d like to be lovable. I would like to think that my wife loves me because she sees something in me worth loving. To some extent romantic love does work like that. We see something in the other person that’s attractive to us. But we tend to think all love works that way. It comes out in our self help mantras: “I’m somebody and I’m valuable and someone should love me.” When we feel unloved, most of us wonder what’s wrong with us, because we think love is something that’s earned. We carry that idea that we earn love over into our thinking about God, that there must be some glimmer of something in me that makes him love me.
But the kind of love that God gives to us and calls us to give to others is something that’s given, not earned. With God, this is magnified by another dimension, because God already loves us with an unbounded love. His love is complete and unlimited, and so there is no way to increase it because it is already complete. I didn’t earn it, and I can’t increase it. God gives it to me without holding back because of who he is. There’s an important corollary to this. I can’t earn it or increase God’s love for me, and neither can I decrease it. Just like God started loving me with an unlimited love without regard to whether I was lovable, he continues to love me with the same love even when it turns out that indeed I’m unlovable. This fact has huge ramifications for our lives.
God’s love for me, his grace and kindness and the righteousness that is given to me in Christ, all of these are poured out freely and abundantly by God. When I mess up, when I become increasingly aware of the failure and rot of the flesh to which I am still bound, I’m tempted to think that I somehow remove myself from God’s love and grace and righteousness. That isn’t true. God’s love for me does not diminish. It is not blocked. It is not removed from us ever once we are adopted as his children. If you are in Christ, God’s love and grace and kindness are poured out on you continually from that moment and into eternity. There is no condemnation, no loss of relationship, ever again.
It is true that God disciplines us, but he does that as training not as punishment. It is true that God gives us trials and difficulties to experience in this life, but as tools in our transformation, and as a path to join with Christ in his work and in our development. None of the discipline we undergo is separate from God’s love for us. It is a part of his love for us as his children who need to grow and who have the opportunity to join in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. As the final verses of Romans 8 say so clearly:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written,
“FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.”
But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39 NIV)
Nor me. Having once become God’s child by adoption I am the recipient of God’s love, with all that comes with that. Nothing I do puts me back under condemnation and judgement or removes me from God’s love, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Its personal, love poured out on you and me as individual children of our loving Father. How can I respond to love like that in any way other than to return it and glory in the kindness and grace of the One who pours out such love for me?