Does God really love me? In moments of discouragement, it’s hard to believe that God hasn’t entirely lost his patience with me when I come to repent of the same sin for the hundredth time, or I doubt his sovereignty when I’ve seen it so clearly displayed time and time again in my life. Has he had enough? How could a holy God continue to pursue such a wayward and adulterous heart like mine?
And if letting him down again is so inevitable, how can I keep coming to him? Since God is omniscient, he must know that it’s only a matter of time before I love something else more than him, let my prayer life lapse, long for all the material things I don’t have and treat a loved one badly. I understand that he is loving and patient but my sin is so persistent that it’s hard to believe God hasn’t simply got to breaking point and given up on me. When I talk about my heart in this way, it is not in an attempt to be humble or self-effacing – it’s just true. Jeremiah says that the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick. (Jeremiah 17:9) And my sin is so insidious, I’ve barely finished repenting for the last sin and I’m already coveting or thinking ill of someone. When I try to imagine the daily betrayal that God must experience every time I forget him and give in to sinful desires, I struggle to understand how he can endure that level of unfaithfulness. It’s true that Jesus forgive sins, and that his death bridged the gap between us, but now that I’m a Christian, I’m supposed to be faithful to God. We wouldn’t expect a husband to remain in a marriage to a chronically unfaithful wife. How can God continue to love me? Surely my unfaithfulness is humiliating for him?
Well I’m right about the depth of my sin, that’s for sure. In fact, I don’t know if any of us has a full understanding of how deeply sin runs in our hearts. And if I dwell on this for any length of time, the situation feels pretty hopeless. I make assumptions about God, presuming that he must be angry with me and fed up that I can’t get my act together after all these lessons and all this time. And when I make this assumption it leads me to avoid God altogether because I fear facing a God at the end of his tether. I become convinced that God is against me so I hide from him and the distance between us widens.
Why does sensing my sin lead me away from God? Where have I gone wrong? I’ve listened to my own sinful heart, and not to God’s voice. I’ve assigned God the attributes of a fallen human being and then put words into his mouth. I would have walked away long ago from a friend so unfaithful. But God is not like us! I only have to open the scriptures and I am confronted with a love that is more deep and radical than I could ever demonstrate. Deuteronomy, Zechariah and the Psalms tell us that we are the apple of [his] eye, and in Isaiah, God asks, Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49) In Songs of Solomon, we read that God’s love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave and that any earthly offering made in exchange for this love would be utterly scorned. As I consider the finality and inescapable nature of death, and the powerful and instinctive nature of a Mother’s love for her baby, I start to get a glimpse of the depth of God’s love. Once I am his, it is inescapable, inevitable, and as certain as my own mortality. Whilst I imagine my favour with God hanging by a thread, I am, in reality, bound head to toe in his unbreakable chords of love. Yes, my sin runs deep, but his love runs deeper. Psalm 103 tells us that God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. God’s love is outrageous and completely counterintuitive – when we would have stopped loving long ago, he loves.
Where else have I gone wrong? I have assumed that God loves me because I have something to offer him. Perhaps not explicitly, but if I assume God’s love will run out if I continue to mess up and let him down, I am also assuming that it won’t if I am a faithful Christian. I am presuming that God loves me because of what I am like. God doesn’t love me because of what I am like, but because of what he is like. There is nothing within me that recommends me to God. A mother doesn’t dote on her baby because of what it can offer or how it can serve her. God loves me because he is gracious and compassionate; slow to anger and rich in love. He loves me because he is merciful and mighty. And he loves me because of Jesus. He loves me because when he sees me, he sees the righteousness of Christ, who has never failed or been unfaithful. He loves me because Jesus suffered and died in my place in order to robe me in his own righteousness. It’s all of him and none of me. What a relief! God’s love for me is not a response to my faithfulness. Jesus’ death on the cross for me is actually proof that God knows exactly how sinful I am, and will continue to be. A great preacher once reminded me, ‘If it took the death of God’s perfect son to save you, you must be a piece of work!’
And understanding that I am a piece of work, instead of leading me down the road to despair, can lead me to a deeper understanding of God’s persistent love for me. When I begin to discover how wide the chasm is between me and perfection, I start to understand the strength and great cost of the bridge that Jesus built to reach me. I realise that I am not a 50 denarii debtor, but a 500 denarii debtor. God’s love stops feeling vague and uncertain, and becomes overwhelming! Such love makes my heart sing, and suddenly the despair is gone. All I want to do is please him, because who wants to sin against love like his?! His love is not a response to my faithfulness – he loves first and my faithfulness is a response to his love! What has happened here? I’m still just as sinful. But now I’m looking up, to Jesus, and his love that eclipses all my sin. And almost without noticing, the joy I find in knowing his relentless love for me begins to motivate me to live more faithfully for him.
Understanding, at least in part, the richness of God’s love for me is essential for being a productive Christian. If I don’t understand that God adores me, I become despondent, disheartened and defeated. I am a soldier disarmed, and therefore inactive and vulnerable. So what an effective tactic of the Devil to cause Christians to doubt God’s love for them. And it has always been his nature to question and undermine what God has said, right back to the Garden of Eden, when he coaxed Eve into questioning God’s love for her. He lied then and he lies today. He has a track record of deceit so we ought not to listen to him.
But what is God’s track record in my life? Love and grace, love and grace. As I reflect over my life, I see his finger prints everywhere – hands of love, on which my name is graven, sculpting a beautiful story of relentless grace and compassion. In happy times it’s easy to see his love and blessing, but during the struggles, as I look closer, I realise that everything God has allowed me to endure has thrown me straight back into his arms. And he’s in it for the long haul. That’s why I see my prayers answered, sometimes years later, in a much wiser way than I could have ever anticipated. At other times I’ve seen he loves me too much to give me what I want and instead has changed and grown me, drawing me closer to him. I read back over journals and am astounded by the countless times I have opened up my bible and heard his voice in verses and passages as if they were written just for me. But most of all, he died to save me. And he saves me over and over – my sin is great but his love is greater. Oh how he loves me.
The hymn writer, William Rees, puts it so perfectly:
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above,
And heaven’s peace and perfect justice,
Kissed a guilty world in LOVE