Loving God, for beginners
We are all beginners in the task of learning to love God. It is the most significant challenge faced by the Christian. When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."
How can I love someone I have never seen? We may experience a form of "love" for a character we read about in a book or see in a movie, but is that anything like the love we feel for someone we actually know? Is our love for God just a form of admiration that we might feel for a hero in a novel or the long-deceased subject of a biography. God is not the long-dead subject of a book. He is a living, breathing Person. How then can we learn to love Him as a real person?
I am convinced that the way we learn how to love God is to think of our relationship with Him in the same way we do with people we can physically see. God wants us to be His friends and to enjoy loving the One who is the most worthy of our love.
We grow in our love for God in the same way we grow in our love for anyone else.
Love goes beyond mere feelings
The first thing to consider is, what does love actually mean? Many people think that love is simply an emotional feeling—like the way you feel when your knees go weak when you meet that someone of the opposite sex for the first time. Too often songs and sermons tell Christians to relate to God as if He were their heavenly boyfriend. Not surprisingly, that picture is frequently not very appealing to men. We must learn to love the real Jesus—not a weak imitation.
The contemporary concept of love is far from the biblical one. It is dangerous to think of love in merely emotional terms: Love is a "doing word," a word full of action. It requires choices—hard choices sometimes. Love is about sacrifice, about faithfulness. It requires commitment. It doesn't always feel so good, and sometimes may even be very painful. As Daniel Bedingfield sings, "Nothing hurts like love, nothing causes your heart so much pain." Loving God is no different. It, too, will at times be painful.
The first step toward learning to love God is to respond to His love for us. We do this because of what He has done for us: "We love because He first loved us." Like any other covenant relationship, we decide to love irrespective of how we feel or, indeed, how it appears to us another person is treating us. The extent of true love for someone else is not measured by how we feel about him when everything is going well. Satan's words could as easily have read, "Does Job love God for nothing?" Our challenge is to love even when we feel things are not going well—to love from the core of ourselves even when we feel despair attempting to take hold.
What is love? Love is a deep-seated orientation of your life towards someone else. It involves your whole being. It usually involves deciding to put the needs of another person before your own. Just ask any parent. Our relationship with God is no different, except that He doesn't have any needs—we are needy. We come to God determined to centre our lives around Him, and to put ourselves in the position of needy recipients of His grace. He calls us to serve Him and worship Him, but it is not because He is deficient in any way. We come to God as receivers, not givers. We love God as little children love their parents, and serve Him in the same way a good mother will ask her child to help her in the kitchen so the child will learn and so they can be together.
Love requires spending time together
There are no shortcuts to loving someone. Love demands interaction and communication, and these require an investment of time. Imagine a friend who comes to you complaining about his girlfriend. He explains that their relationship just doesn't seem to be going anywhere. You ask him how long they have been going out, and what their conversations are like. Your friend replies, "Oh, we don't actually go out and talk with each other!" Many Christians spend little or no time with God and then wonder why they are not growing in their relationships with Him.
What does spending time with God look like? Clearly one of the most important ways we spend time with God is in prayer. But how do we pray in such a way that we actually feel that we are in the presence of God—that we are in a real conversation with Him? Prayer must not be merely reciting a shopping list to God. Instead of rushing to ask Him to do things for us, we start by praising Him for who He is and thanking Him for what He has done for us. As we do this and experience clear answers to prayer, just as in any relationship, more of a sense of a shared history with God will emerge and love will deepen. The longer we know Him and the more we remember how He has helped us and answered our prayers, the more we will love Him. But prayer is not only about setting aside special periods of time to be with God. It's that sense of continually communing with Him in our daily routine. It is critical that we also spend time with God in repentance and receiving forgiveness. Jesus said that those who are forgiven much will love much.
Love requires a deep knowledge and understanding of the other person
There is no substitute for getting to know and understand God by reading the Bible. We must grow in the biblical knowledge of who God is and what He is like. Many Christians have only a vague idea of the character of God and are unable to identify where the Bible teaches what we assume about Him. To grow in our love for God, the Bible must shape our beliefs about God. I believe it is important that we know why we believe what we do, and that we do not merely parrot theories taught by others.
Do we merely "assume" certain truths about God? Unfortunately, not all of these can be assumed these days. Where C. S. Lewis was able to say, for example, "Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He knows what you and I are going to do tomorrow" (Mere Christianity), we can no longer assert it as something generally understood by our culture. If we compromise on these truths and we end up with a God who doesn't know everything or who isn't all-powerful, our ability to love such a weakened God is severely diminished.
As we learn more about God—His glory, His perfection, and his existence as the Trinity—I believe our love for Him will grow. We can trace throughout the Bible the unique characteristics of God, and see how Jesus shares every one of these. It is said of Jesus that "in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily." He is the revelation of God to us. The more we learn of Him, the more we love Him.
We must understand God in all his transcendence and immanence. As the book of Exodus describes God: "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty." Many Christians emphasize one or the other of these aspects. It is only as we understand that God is both loving and holy, near to us yet separate from us, that we will learn to love Him for who He is.
The Spirit helps us to love God
It is sad that the arguments over charismatic gifts of the last century have led so many of us to forget that for hundreds of years many Christians understood that our birthright is an experience of God mediated by the Holy Spirit. Christian leaders of the past spoke of a pouring out of the Holy Spirit that would help us to experience God's love. That is rarely spoken about today—even charismatic Christians sometimes have a tendency to over-emphasize the gifts instead of the Holy Spirit's work in promoting the intimate knowledge of God that we are intended to have. The Bible describes the Spirit as follows: "For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God." Clearly it is not an option to ignore the Third Person of the Trinity if we want to grow in our love for God.
Jesus is very clear about how we demonstrate our love for Him, and what the results are. He links obedience with love, and then He promises that those who obey Him will know the presence of God by way of the Spirit's presence in the world: "Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him . . . my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him."
The Apostle Paul describes it this way: "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." He also writes, "Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" If we need help in loving God, we should ask His Spirit to aid us in our weakness and teach us how to love Him.
Jesus says an incredible thing: "I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you." I am increasingly provoked that few Christians would say that their experience of the Spirit was preferable to Jesus' living in the world bodily. But Christians should seek a deeper experience of God's Spirit—not for experience's sake, but that we might love God more.
We learn to love others by spending time with their friends
How often do Christians effectively say to Jesus, "I love you, but I don't really like your bride," by their indifference and their lack of commitment to a local expression of the Church? For all of us who are beginners at loving God, playing active roles in local congregations will help us learn to love God in all of the ways I have mentioned so far. But more than that, by giving and receiving love from other members of the family of God, we will be exposed to the many facets reflecting the glory of God. The church is intended to demonstrate the multicolored wisdom and glory of God. We cannot love God properly without loving His Church. As we learn to give ourselves sacrificially in love to our spiritual family in the same way we love our natural family, our love for God increases. This is of such vital importance that Jesus said, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
I believe God has put the Church on earth to love God, to love each other, and to love the world. I pray that God will give us the desire and ability to do each of these better.
Read more about loving God on Adrian's blog: