“This is how God showed his love among us; He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.” 1 John 4:9
As a teacher and one who studies the behavior of people, I wrestle with my thoughts a lot. Things never seem to be truly cut and dry, with someone always pointing out an exception to the rule or some element of a situation that is open to interpretation. It doesn’t matter what opinion a person expresses, there will always be another seated at the opposite end of the table ready to challenge that mindset. People and their behavior make up a big ocean that isn’t always easy to wade through or make sense of; therefore, I wrestle, and I don’t think I’m alone.
With that being said, I’m certain there will be those seated across the aisle from me on what I’m going to discuss, but this happens to be one issue in which I personally see no gray area. It’s a certainty that I’ve committed my life to share: that which constitutes perfect love. People indeed have a deep capacity to love, and it’s unique compared to any other creature on the planet. Our ability for compassion, empathy, and reasoning is unparalleled. Whether it’s the embrace of a parent or a reunion with a lifelong friend, we have all, no matter how young or old, felt the effects of love given by another human. Perhaps for some the only experience is that of the pain from love withheld; either way, the feelings surrounding love have left a mark.
As I mentioned last week, I have been one of the fortunate ones, with an immediate and extended family full of love. I’ve been mentored by great people, cultivated lifelong friends, and been blessed with an incredible wife with who I share two fantastic children with. I feel confident in saying I’ve experienced human love to its greatest capacity. In spite of all this, I can’t devote my life to teaching this love because it will be riddled with my own personal attitudes and bents. If I tried, I’m certain I could instill to those listening some good habits and behaviors, but I haven’t loved without mistakes, and inevitably, the flaws in me would translate to those learning from me. When people are primarily our teachers of love, perfect love is not experienced, and this burdens me deeply.
The only love without blemish comes from God. I can teach this love because it never changes, and it has been clearly defined. In its absolute simplest form, it is this: God’s only son, Jesus, was sacrificed on our behalf so we could live free from the things that drag us down (see 1 John 4:10). As pure as human love can be, you will never see it sacrifice its own for the sake of others; you will never see its reach span the globe, covering every generation in a single moment, regardless of race; and it will never truly know you inside and out because it didn’t create you. God’s perfect love did!
I was watching a documentary the other night about famous chefs around the world. In this particular episode the filmmakers were following a world renowned chef with several restaurants worldwide. He had chosen to divert from the typical “high class,” five-star scene, instead embracing a much grittier and rustic style of cooking with fire. His life was anything but normal. Many shots showed him traveling the globe, cooking his daily catch of fish, game, and fresh vegetables outdoors in various exotic or remote locations. Often times he was seen fly fishing, sipping wine by a lakeside fire, or surrounded by friends sharing an incredible meal. I have to tell you, I was mesmerized by his adventurous lifestyle, and there was something extremely romantic about it all. He seemed to love big, both life and the people around him.
However, as the story deepened I began to catch glimpses of something as he described his philosophy behind much of what he did. There was indeed a pursuit of rich, fulfilling experiences, but with it also an unwillingness to lay aside his own ambitions for anyone else. At one point, as he was reflecting on his relationship with his children, I saw something come across his face that I recognized – an inability to love perfectly. His entire countenance shifted as his eyes moved to the ground, admitting his selfishness and absence from his children’s lives. I’m not suggesting this man represents an exact replica of all of us; there were obvious and avoidable mistakes he made in his relationships. What he does represent, however, is a clear picture of what we would all likely do, if asked to reflect on how perfect our love towards others has been. Even the most wholehearted person will still have something to stare at the ground for, because human love will never be perfect.
Perhaps by now you’re willing to agree with me - human love isn’t perfect, but you aren’t settled yet in the idea that God is the one to look to for perfect love. There is still a common perception amongst people that if we just look deeper within ourselves, or just try harder, we will figure it out someday. This is humanism at its core, and as someone who’s experienced the perfect of love of God, it’s the very thing my heart yearns for people to see beyond. It’s not a matter of someone believing what I do, it’s a matter of that person experiencing perfect love as the power of what Christ did on the cross goes to work.
A recent thread I was following on Facebook contained a post from someone with this worldview that really caught my attention. Here are some of the highlights in order to gain a better understanding:
“A person can lead a moral life without the belief in a deity. In fact, the Bible is anything but an ethical example to live by. It is full of blood, sexism, misogyny, genocide, murder, war, homophobia, slavery, human sacrifice, and incest.”
“It teaches us that we are weak without a god/ born a sinner. It is a fear and shame based belief system. When people think god is in control, they look for signs, or anything that could be interpreted as god's will (usually aligning with their own). If you think somebody else is driving, when if fact, nobody is driving, how is that being at all responsible? Religion, all throughout history, has been used as a tool by clergy and powers that be, to control the masses. It takes away both personal responsibility and inner strength.”
“I believe in people doing good things, just to be good, not people being good out of fear of eternal damnation, or for rewards in an afterlife.”
“People loving each other and working together for the good of all people and other life on the planet. This is what I would like to see more of and take part in.”
First I must say that the person who wrote this was very cordial and made an earnest effort to state this was only their opinion. My goal is not to single this person out, but the interpretation of God and His Word is a good representation of a large population of people that I’m specifically addressing. But why? Because this is the same mindset that is resistant to accepting God’s perfect love because they mistakenly believe God is responsible for evil in the world, He (and His people) uses manipulation as a way to control, and His Kingdom is based on a “fear of punishment” system.
I agree that people are capable of doing good and making moral decisions even if they don’t believe in God. I used to be one of those people. However, in order for a person to conclude that there is a God, it must become clear that He is our ultimate lover, and it starts with His Word. The Bible is not censored and contains things like genocide, murder, war, slavery, human sacrifice, and incest to show that the heart behind such things has always been rooted in humans. It’s to give an accurate depiction of the human condition! God does not withhold love from us because of what we do, instead, He freely gives perfect love in spite of what we do (Ephesians 2:4-5)! His Word would be doing us a disservice if these details were withheld.
It is true that throughout history, those claiming to be servants of God have used manipulation and rules to control people. People have committed horrific acts in the name of “God’s love.” God’s true love is Christ, and Christ taught freedom through relationship with him and turning from sin. When human tradition and personal advancement is valued over Jesus’ message, it’s called religion. Examples of this are still rampant today and play a part in why many people turn from God. It’s ironic that people point to this as a reason not to follow Christ, when He specifically warned against it time and time again (see Matthew 23).
Although fear of punishment has always been a way for people to control other people, it was never initiated, nor is it used by God. From the moment of creation He declared we had access to all of the amazing things in the world and the freedom to choose whether or not to be in relationship with Him. His only stipulation is that we don’t try to become like Him (Genesis 2:16-17). Perfect love will never force itself upon someone, and God set this precedent.
“If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first.” 1 John 4:18-19
From the moment we are born, our conditioning begins. Much of our worldview gets squeezed through the filter of human thought, intellect, and institutions before it makes its way into our being. This, unfortunately, includes our view of love and our capacity to give it. It’s tough to build a foundational view of something off of a flawed template – what you get will be flawed as well. If you are laboring to love like you know deep down inside it’s meant to be given, it’s time to look to the One who contains no flaw. God knew what He was doing when He spoke the world into existence – initiating love, when He sent His Son to the cross to model love, when He called you and I to Himself to experience love, so we could reach a broken world and emulate His perfect love.
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:8