of God’s Love
Countless books and poems have been
written, songs sung and sermons preached about the love of God.
Sadly, millions have never experienced that love because their “God”
is not the one we know and worship. God’s family in community
are capable of manifesting His love in action, rendering it visible
to people who are searching. If we want to bring the Gospel into
peoples’ lives and make a difference for good, against a
background of despair, we need to be motivated by the love of Christ.
God’s care in community will say more about the relevance of
the Gospel in today’s world than all our rhetoric.
People reflect their notions of God
Let’s start with your vision of
God. That will largely determine the nature and functionality of
your faith and community.
If the God you worship is harsh and
judgmental, you will be harsh in turn. No one will measure up to
your standards. Everyone will be guilty of breaking the rules you
set and by which you claim to live. Belief in this God is
one-directional; it calls down fire from heaven on those who take a
contrary view and ostracizes forever those who fall into sin or who
disagree with His followers (Luke 9:54).
If your God is angry, you will live as
an angry person. Muslim extremists serve the cause of an
unreachable, unknowable, angry God and leave a trail of blood. Their
God is capricious; His primary emphasis is sending people to hell.
So they reflect their theology and become angry at the world. When
the time is apt, they destroy themselves and others, in order to
convince God not to be angry with them and to give them instead a
free entry pass to the earthly pleasures of Paradise. I have often
tried to reason with Shi’ite friends about knowing God, but
their anger on His behalf has clouded their judgment and closed their
minds. Even the Psalmist occasionally described God as angry (Psalm
7:11) and ended up calling for divine judgment. (By the way, Hell is
real, but Jesus’ came to save us from it, if we will believe in
Him; the default in the New Testament is grace, not fury. See
If your God is retributive, you will
always be geared to seeking retribution. There will be no room for
redemption, for turning the other cheek or going the second mile.
Retribution will be swift. People whose God is retributive are
usually mean-spirited. If a homosexual dies of AIDS they assume, “He
got what he deserved”, rather than regretting the eternal loss
of someone God loves. When someone is sick the assumption is that he
or she is being punished for some sin (cf John 9:1-3). When misery
and national disasters such as famine, hurricanes or earthquakes
occur, we are told it is an “Act of God”. There is no
question that God’s laws, when violated, bring harm to
offenders and innocents alike and that the physical world is
experiencing the effects of the Fall of Adam and Eve (Romans 8 22).
However, I’m thankful we usually don’t get what we
“deserve”. Otherwise we would all be in trouble. Jesus
called people to repent and to experience God’s mercy. He took
our sins and punishment on himself. The God of the Bible gives us
inexhaustible love and asks that we share it with men and women
If your God is legalistic, you will
end up in chains. I have been bruised by legalists over the years.
Legalism makes things other than God absolute. It emphasizes
external appearances and becomes preoccupied with trivia. The
legalist becomes agitated when those around him fail to match their
expectations. The religious leaders of Jesus day were legalists;
they subscribed to a code of over six hundred rules. They stood on
the sidelines, condemning those who didn’t measure up. As a
result, they failed to recognise Jesus as the embodiment of truth
when he appeared among them. That’s right, they missed Him
completely. Because Jesus didn’t share their narrow view of
the world, they accused him of being “a sinner”.
Legalists are still exclusive. They take pleasure in identifying
everyone else’s failings. Those who don’t fit the
formula are excommunicated or regarded as non-Christians. Legalism
is too “religious”. It is opposed to liberty. Did you
know that the word "religion" was derived from an
expression meaning "to bind" or "to limit"?
Religion proclaims ideas and beliefs that bind and control people.
The New Testament idea of salvation, however, was expressed in Greek
words that mean, "to set free, liberate, rescue". The two
are mutually exclusive (Romans 10:4).
If your God is shaped by the
architecture of naves and language of liturgy, you will end up
becoming an ecclesiastical hedonist, believing that He only dwells in
hallowed temples made by human hands (cf Acts 17:24). Each week you
will repair to your “God box” and say you are going to
the “house” of God. The building will become a
substitute for faith.
If your God is a heavenly Santa Claus,
you will expect (or demand) to be showered with presents and be a
“prosperous” Christian. In so doing you will alienate
millions of godly men and women in large tracts of the world who live
in relative poverty, dictatorships, hunger and want, but who
nevertheless love Jesus and try to serve him in their daily lives.
If your God is steeped in myth, you
will end up living superstitiously. Your personal rules will be
rigid and you will be fearful of breaking the least of them “just
in case” God stops loving or blesses you. Your faith will be
The correct perspective
If, on the other hand, your God is a
loving Creator and Father, you will expect to experience His love
profoundly. This is the God who humbled Himself and came into the
human race, who understands our needs, who brings the lonely into
families, who bridges the distances between people with divergent
perspectives and who has built a world-wide fellowship of believers.
(Muslims talk about a worldwide “Umma”, or community, but
the relationship is based primarily on external formalities and
laws.) Serving this God brings satisfaction, joy and generosity of
spirit. Your life will be marked by acts of love like His. God so
loved the world that He gave His Son (John 3:16). In the same way,
as a child of God, you will be motivated to lay down your life for
others (1 John 3:16).
If your God is forgiving and your
faith relationship-based, you will overlook the shortfalls of others
and reach out to restore them unconditionally and work with the Holy
Spirit to bring about change so that they don’t keep falling
into the same hole (Psalm 85:10).
“Like father, like son.”
Jesus was like His Heavenly Father (John 14:9-11). We are also
called to imitate, or “mimic” him (Ephesians 5:1; 3 John
11). God’s love for humanity has been the basis for Christian
mission from apostolic days. Which makes me wonder, how
can it remain invisible in our world that is hungry for authentic
love? How can people who know Christians not
be touched by it?
Loving like God – a community
Love is the most written about, most
sung about and, ironically, the most fought over commodity in the
world. Politicians in the West talk about a “compassionate
society”. Love is misunderstood, invoked as the basis for
building relations, then tearing them apart.
God has made us
for community. The early church spent a lot of time in community.
When I was growing up,
Christian communities were common. Meals became “Agape”
(Love) feasts, based on a New Testament model. Then we all
re-discovered privacy and community became passé. All
cultures are “alive” and all change over time and their
words change meaning. Only God does not change (Malachi 3:6).
The “Children of God”
cult, under the leadership of “David Moses” promoted
“free love” among its members. Others, such as the group
Jim Jones led to a collective in the jungle of Guyana had an almost
hypnotic impact on its members, that eroded reason and resulted in
mass suicides in the name of religion, but not before hundreds were
hoodwinked into believing they had found real love.
God’s love is supernatural. If
we do not love supernaturally, it shows that we do not know Him (1
John 4:8). A recent secular survey asked people to re-write the Ten
Commandments. While most of the Biblical Commandments (Exodus 20)
were eliminated, the single feature common to responses was that that
those who participated wanted to be treated by others in the same
manner in which they were treated. Sounds very much like Jesus
so-called Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). Non-Christians want believers
to demonstrate God’s love in action.
What does Godly love look like?
Whereas human love is self-centred and
grasping, God’s love gives. It never stops (1 Corinthians
13:8). Human love boasts conquest. Divine love practices service.
Human love is pitched at achieving the highest dividend for the
apparent giver. Godly love stresses the good of the “other”.
Romantic love looks like roses and chocolates, with expectations of
reciprocity thrown in. Godly love is shaped like a cross. Commands
like “love one another”, “forebear one another”,
“forgive one another”, “edify one another”
and “prefer one another pepper the New Testament.
In the West, people often find it hard
to get close to others. I once visited a community where the leader
insisted we all commence with “a time of openness and
brokenness”. The reverse ended up being the case, as people
felt threatened and clammed up.
In some so-called “Third World”
cultures, I have seen Christian communities as sources of emotional
strength, acceptance, networking, teaching for marriage and family,
mentoring by more experienced people, practical help for those in
need, counsel, affirmation and encouragement in times of self-doubt,
stress or bereavement and physical security. All of these are
Biblical norms, and they work (cf .Luke 4:13-14).
God’s love avoids exaggerations
and poses. Not like Craig, a friend who drifted away from simple
Christian faith, joined the Children of God and went to India to
scrub toilets to show he could “serve” others better than
mainstream Christians. Jesus said that such actions already have
their rewards (Matthew 6:5, 16). Christians are called to be
hospitable and sacrificial
because they belong to Him. They don’t have to advertise their
services and good works, because their focus is on Jesus and eternal
rewards, not human approval.
We are called to be like God. “Dear
friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone
who loves has been born of God and knows God.
Whoever does not love
does not know God, because God is love. We love because he first
loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his
brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother,
whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has
given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
(1 John 4:7-811, 19-21). The litmus test of Christian faith isn’t
how well we know our Bible or creed, but how well we love God
and people. I have met agnostics who read the Bible as literature,
but were not interested in Jesus. Love isn’t knowledge. Nor
is it a feeling, attachment, loyalty or obligation that traps people
in pointless relationships. It is a life.
divorce rates among committed Christians and schisms and schists in
churches (try checking out “church” in the yellow pages
where you live), there is little wonder people are giving up on
pretence in organised Christianity. (I wonder how long Jesus would
have hung around.) You and I can be different.
Over the years I
have witnessed numerous attempts to form functioning communities.
When I was growing up we had the hippies, followed by the yippies.
Young people disillusioned with the Vietnam War and double standards
on the part of politicians and other leaders turned conventions on
their heads and set out to build a better society. Their efforts
generated one of the shortest-lived social movements in history.
Around the same time, Christians in the West experienced a counter to
the “counter-culture” in the Jesus Revolution. Some of
my friends called themselves “Jesus freaks” and went to
live in communities. They were lauded as more authentic than “free
love” experiments or ashrams subsequently established by Hare
Krishna devotees and people disillusioned by the church. They tried
to model community as an alternative to urban living.
community is not a pretty place. Commenting on the Australian
political environment a Cabinet Minister described it as a “feral
public culture”. He went on to say that, “Politicians
give no quarter; the media is merciless; the public are unforgiving
and highly judgmental. No one is given the benefit of the doubt.
The worst is always assumed”.
Those who seek
to be influential in the secular community run the risk of being
exposed to the flames of rejection, disappointment and
disillusionment. Are the people of God any better? (Community
living can bring out the worst in people who are selfish, immature,
ruled by their passion, when living at close range.)
I am the first
to admit that the Christian community is less than perfect. That’s
partly because I am a member. When we think we are “making
it”, growing as Christians, we stumble into a pit, pride
enters, bad attitudes emerge and we are reminded that we have a long
way to go in our quest to be like Jesus (even with the Holy Spirit’s
help). But there is something about Christian community that is
“different” from any other human organization. It is the
heart of Jesus. Sometimes it requires extra time and effort. It can
be more confrontational than we are used to. It is up to you and me
to have an impact in our communities.
anthropologist friend studied in Malaysia. “Every night, as I
tried to read, the other students would come into my dormitory and
sit with me, in case I was feeling lonely”. He told me about a
colleague who observed an Inuit community in Canada. “When she
wanted to be alone, other members of the community would sit in a
circle around her, watching her being by herself.” Clearly,
not everyone has the same social needs or expectations. However,
members of communities need time and opportunities to get to know and
support one another.
I am a great
believer in Christians meeting as community. An experienced pastor
friend once described the value of this to me over a campfire. Using
his tongs, he took out a red-hot coal from the centre of the fire; he
put it aside and we watched it, to see what would happen. Slowly the
orange faded. Before long the fire died and the wood went black.
Only by remaining in touch with the other embers did it initially
have a chance of remaining on fire. He explained to me that the
Christian life is like that. Those who withdraw from community
(fellowship) are the first to feel faith extinguish and commitment
Ziad and Elias
are friends of mine. Ziad grew up as a Palestinian Shi’ite
Muslim, suspicious of Christians and bitter about the West’s
apparent double standards over conflict in the Middle East. Elias
was raised in the formality of the Maronite fold. In one sense, they
could not have been more different. Searching for God they came
together in an Alpha course in an Anglican church. As they worked
through the issues presented by the course they came to the
realization that what they needed was a personal relationship with
Jesus Christ. In the natural, they should have emerged as bitter
enemies in an ancient feud. Now they are the best of friends.
Christ transformed their differences. These days they fellowship in
Christian community and show those around them that there is an
alternative. Bridging the gap between people like Ziad and Elias has
disciples had similar differences. Take the examples of Simon the
Zealot and Matthew. A bit of background will help. The zealots were
political Jews in Jesus’ time. They hated the Roman overlords
with a passion and were well known (and feared) for targeted
assassinations. They only people they denounced more violently than
the oppressors and singled out for attack were Jewish tax collectors,
who work as stooges for the Romans and whom the Zealots believed had
betrayed their people.
Matthew, on the
other hand, was a certified tax collector. He belonged to a group
who believed collaboration was better than annihilation and bitterly
despised the zealots because they destabilized the system and brought
reprisals against innocent civilians. The two groups were implacable
foes. Then along came Jesus. Calling Simon and Matthew to follow
Him, he transformed their learned hatred into a community of love.
love can do that. In New Testament times, slaves and masters who
became Christians discovered a love that transcended their social
conditions, leading to the collapse of slavery and the political
system that perpetrated it.
When I lived in
South America, missionary friends in Peru took me to meet tribes
along the Ucayali River who formerly made war against one another,
but had given up rivalries to worship God together in grass huts
without walls that served as churches. During an outreach with Youth
With A Mission I lived with Jews and Arabs whose love for Jesus
enabled them to pray together and witness to their friends about the
absolutely transforming power of the Gospel. God’s community
is above history. It is uniquely cross-cultural and cross-class. It
emphasizes the person of Jesus instead of reasons for community.
When the love God breaks through, He creates positive synergy and
potential to grow.
Time for action
the game plan? We need to take
our faith seriously, break out of nondescript and homogeneous
Christianity, value our relationships and reach out in His care and
compassion to those who are hurting.
relationships don’t easily squeeze into fixed models or
structures. However, when we have experienced the love of God and
discovered men and women just like us who have also been touched by
Him, we can be channels of His love in our world. God’s love
is the most powerful force on earth. People give up on religion
because they can’t see it has any meaning for their lives.
Your life may be the only evidence someone has of the love of God.
God never stops
loving us. The Holy Spirit pours love into our hearts (Romans 5:5).
Nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:35-39). The Bible
encourages us to keep ourselves in God’s love (Jude 21). His
love on earth is present in His people. It is able to fill the
empty, set people free and remove guilt, anger, loneliness, hurts,
bitterness and betrayal. If you want your life to beat in time with
God’s heartbeat and to experience more of His love, recapture
the love of Jesus by spending more time with the Holy Spirit and
We often fail, or feel we have not
“got it all together”. The
Christian community should be a “place” where we can be
real and share our joys, hang-ups and heartaches in safety. It
should (and can) be an environment filled with Christ’s love,
motivated by that love to reach out to the world and a locus for true
“companionship” (the word is derived from the concept of
breaking “bread with” someone), based on shared faith and
Will you accept
the challenge? Such a community of love really does exist.