How Can I Experience the Love of God?
John Blanchard stood up from the bench, straightened his Army uniform and studied the crowd of people making their way through Grand Central Station. He looked for the girl whose heart he knew, but whose face he didn't, the girl with the rose. His interest in her had begun thirteen months before in a Florida library. Taking a book off the shelf he found
himself intrigued, not with the words of the book, but with the notes penciled in the margin. The soft handwriting reflected a thoughtful soul and insightful mind. In the front of the book, he discovered the previous owner's name, Miss Hollis Maynell. With time and effort he located her address. She lived in New York City. He wrote her a letter introducing himself and inviting her to correspond. The next day he was shipped overseas for service in World War II.
During the next year and one month the two grew to know each other through the mail. Each letter was a seed falling on a fertile heart. A romance was budding. Blanchard requested a photograph, but she refused. She felt that if he really cared, it wouldn't matter what she looked like. When the day finally came for him to return from Europe, they scheduled their first meeting - 7:00 PM at the Grand Central Station in New York. "You'll recognize me," she wrote, "by the red rose I'll be wearing on my lapel." So at 7:00 he was in the station looking for a girl whose heart he loved, but whose face he'd never seen.
I'll let Mr. Blanchard tell you what happened: A young woman was coming toward me, her figure long and slim. Her blonde hair lay back in curls from her delicate ears; her eyes were blue as flowers. Her lips and chin had a gentle firmness, and in her pale green suit she was like springtime come alive. I started toward her, entirely forgetting to notice that she was not wearing a rose. As I moved, a small, provocative smile curved her lips. "Going my way, sailor?" she murmured. Almost uncontrollably I made one step closer to her, and then I saw Hollis Maynell. She was standing almost directly behind the girl. A woman well past 40, she had graying hair tucked under a worn hat.. She was more than plump, her thick-ankled feet thrust into low-heeled shoes. The girl in the green suit was walking quickly away. I felt as though I was split in two, so keen was my desire to follow her, and yet so deep was my longing for the woman whose spirit had truly companioned me and upheld my own. And there she stood. Her pale, plump face was gentle and sensible, her gray eyes had a warm and kindly twinkle. I did not hesitate.
My fingers gripped the small worn blue leather copy of the book that was to identify me to her. This would not be love, but it would be something precious, something perhaps even better than love, a friendship for which I had been and must ever be grateful.
I squared my shoulders and saluted and held out the book to the woman, even though while I spoke I felt choked by the bitterness of my disappointment. "I'm Lieutenant John Blanchard, and you must be Miss Maynell. I am so glad you could meet me; may I take you to dinner?" The woman's face broadened into a tolerant smile. "I don't know what this is about, son," she answered, "but the young lady in the green suit who just went by, she begged me to wear this rose on my coat. And she said if you were to ask me out to dinner, I should go and tell you that she is waiting for you in the big restaurant across the street. She said it was some kind of test!" It's not difficult to understand and admire Miss Maynell's wisdom. The true nature of a heart is seen in its response to the unattractive. "God demonstrated His love for us in this that while we were still sinners Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8). We are all like Hollis Maynall in some way, yet God loves us, enough to die for us.
Sadly not everyone knows that fact, for to know God's love is heaven on earth. Once in a while you will encounter a person for whom that love is still theoretical. Their reaction may be "I like to believe in a God of love." What lies behind this assertion? It is often a sign of defensiveness. The person feels uncomfortable with traditional belief in God - perhaps his holiness or wrath, perhaps the belief in a day of judgment, or of heaven and hell. What ever it is, this person has a ready answer, "I like to believe in a God of love." It is their security blanket, their defence when confronted with the genuine. The implication is that God is so loving that he could not reject anyone. So loving that all will be forgiven and saved, even presumably if they reject it. So loving that in the end everyone will be in heaven. This kind of love is benign and superficial. Its a fairy story make belief love that bears no relationship to reality.
How should we handle this assertion? Agree or disagree? I usually find the best way is to ask another question. "On what basis have you reached that conclusion?" or "What evidence do you have that God is a God of love?" or perhaps "What do you mean by love?" Perhaps I may even be bold and ask "How does this belief in God help you when life is difficult?"
It usually does not take long before you will see how best to proceed without making them feel defensive or close up. "May I share with you how I have come to experience God's love?" or perhaps say "I agree with you that God is a God of love, lets explore what we mean by this love." "Jesus came to reveal God's love, have you ever read his story?" The Bible is the best place to find out about God's love. That is why I invite people to read the Gospel and discover for themselves the extent of God's love revealed in Jesus Christ.
Two general comments about God's love.
1. "God is love" is not the complete truth about God as far as the Bible is concerned.
It is not an abstract definition which stands alone, but a summing up of what the whole revelation set forth in Scripture tells us about its Author. It presupposes all the rest of the biblical witness to God. The God who is revealed as love is the God of Hosea and the God of Jesus. It is the God who made the world, who judged it by the Flood, who called Abraham and made out of him a nation, who chastened his Old Testament people by conquest, captivity, and exile, who sent his son into the world, who cast off unbelieving Israel and shortly after Jesus spoke those words about Jerusalem, destroyed the city, and will one day judge the world. It is this God, who is love. It is therefore quite perverse to claim to believe in a God of love as if it called into question the biblical witness that God is a holy God, a severe God, a God of mercy yes but also of justice. It is not possible to believe in a God of love who at the same time is not a God who chastens and punishes evil, for if he did not he would not be loving. So in one sense to say "God is love" is not the complete truth about God as far as the Bible is concerned. Nevertheless it is possible to say that "God is love" is the complete truth about God so far as the Christian is concerned. For his love toward those who believe in Jesus Christ finds expression in everything that he says and does.
So Paul could write to the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20) - who loved me and gave himself for me.
This personal knowledge is a great comfort especially when we cannot understand God's purposes say in a failed examination, or our parents divorce, or a loved one has cancer. We don't need to retreat into a theoretical belief "I like to believe in a God of love".
God's purpose is that we so experience his love that, as Paul writes to the Romans, And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son." (Romans 8:28-29). Lets try and define God's love. (In this I am very grateful to Jim Packer's "Knowing God" and I commend it to you.)
1. God's love is an exercise of his goodness and generosity toward his creation.
2. God's love is an exercise of his goodness towards sinners. Not merely a love that is undeserved but a love that is free, spontaneous. The Greek and Roman world of the New Testament times had never dreamed of such love; its gods were often credited with lusting after women, but never loving sinners.
3. God's love is an exercise of his goodness towards individual sinners. It is not a vague, diffused good will towards anyone and everyone but no one in particular. God knows us individually and personally before we are born and with all this knowledge about me he loves me. Read Psalm 139 to get a feel for this truth.
4. God's love to sinners was expressed in the gift of his Son to be their Saviour. The measure of love is how much it gives. No wonder Paul says this love is so great it passes knowledge.
5. God's love to sinners reaches its objective as it brings them to know and enjoy him in a covenant relationship. A covenant relationship that is for ever and ever and ever. A covenant relationship, like marriage, that we must freely choose to enter. "But as many as received Him he gave them the right to become children of God." (John 1:12) An unconditional love that loves unconditionally those who will receive it. But an unconditional love that will allow those loved to walk away and spurn that love.
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate." (Matthew 23:37-38)
God's love is unconditional to all who will receive Jesus. Is it really true that God is love to me as a Christian? If so, then certain questions arise. Why do I ever grumble and show discontent and resentment at the circumstances in which God has placed me?
Why am I ever distrustful, fearful, depressed? Why do I ever allow myself to grow cool, formal and half hearted in the service of the God who loves me so? Why do I allow my loyalties to be divided, so that God has not all my heart? The apostle John wrote that "God is love" in order to make an ethical point, "Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." (1 John 4:11). Could an observes learn from the quality and degree of love that I show to others - my wife? my husband? my parents? my family? my neighbours? people at church? people at work? - anything at all about the greatness of God's love to me? Meditate on these things. Examine yourself.
(Material contained in this reflection is taken from J.I. Packer's 'Knowing God' published by Hodder & Stoughton).
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