All of us, without exception, experience an urge deep in our souls to be loved.
So powerful is this urge that we will do all manner of crazy, random, weird, even unhealthy things to secure love.
Depending on our experience of whether we feel loved much or little, the outcome of our lives can take on all sorts of behavioural patterns, because ultimately we will do whatever it takes to satisfy that urge and feel loved.
The tragedy is that most of our behavioural patterns are destructive and self-serving, and therefore, ironically, not love at all.
As with pretty much everything (maybe everything) love has its counterfeits.
One of them is ‘acceptance’. The problem with acceptance is that we only accept people we like, and even then only when they please us and aren’t annoying us. It’s surely true that acceptance doesn’t extend to our enemies, especially if it doesn’t extend to our neighbour.
So we are always treading on eggshells because we must be acceptable to be accepted, and we use acceptance ourselves as currency, accepting more vigorously those we want to accept us, and refusing to accept those we don’t feel we need to be accepted by.
But that’s not love.
Paul sets up a definition of love for us that is hard to deny, even as it is hard to receive into our ‘accepting’ hearts.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
If we examine our hearts we can all too often find that our hearts aren’t oriented towards these things. We realise that our hearts paint the exact opposite picture to the one Paul is showing us.
But as bad as that may be, or seem to us, Paul is not defining the essence of love but the characteristics of it.
For each of us, our essence – or personality/personhood – and our characteristics are not the same thing.
Who we are is who God made us to be.
Our character is the persona we play out in and around the person God made us to be, like an actor in a play.
Our character can never escape the person, but if we don’t know who we really are then we will look to our character to try and tell us who we are.
This would be fine if, like God, we were perfect. Our character and person would be perfectly united so that one perfectly follows from the other and my characteristics would tell the story of my real personhood.
But we’re not like God, we are sinners who have been separated from God by our sin. Our rebellion has left us out in the cold and now we’re like wretched lost sheep without a shepherd, desperately trying to copy other sheep in the hope that it will lead us to back to the shepherd.
This is the pitiful nature of our love without God.
We have a need to love God deep in our hearts but we’ve rejected Him, and so we place ourselves there, and we simply don’t fit the space.
This affects ALL of our love relationships. Our self-inflected love struggles to express itself outwards to others without first establishing what benefit will come back in return. It is a selfish – not selfless – love.
God’s love is perfect. It is perfect because He is perfect.
God loves Himself first, because He is BOTH the most loving person there is, AND the most loveable person there is. That’s why He is triune; Father, Son and Spirit in perfect relationship within whom perfect love is both given and received, perfectly.
Without this love and this love relationship we wouldn’t exist, because it was out of a desire to share this perfect love with us that God created mankind in the first place.
You exist because God is love; perfect love.
And He made you for that love relationship. He made you to receive and be received, as a continual and perpetual relationship of love between you and He.
What happens when we reject God in our hearts is that this love dynamic gets short-circuited and it just keeps looping in on itself driving us more and more into love of self, fuelled by pride.
And this can take on different extremes in how it is lived out.
The one who is overtly arrogant and vain may display it more obviously, but someone who hates themselves and rejects the very basis of their intrinsic value is still saying, in their pride, “I know the real truth of who I am, and I’m worthless”, when in fact God has made them in His image and placed an innate and irreplaceable value on their life.
When we receive God – when we stop rebelling and stop rejecting Him – God’s love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5).
More than that… when we are born again we BECOME children of God. We have a total spiritual rebirth, and move from being dead in our sins to being alive in Christ. The change is total. We are no longer orphans but children of God. It’s a status thing, and an actual reality thing.
But even though God has poured His love into our hearts, we haven’t necessarily received it. We have everything we need to love as God loves; we have His love poured into our hearts.
And yet with our hearts full of His love, we still live as though we are not loved. We display all the same insecurities, and we crave acceptance in the same ways, because the love issue must be settled.
Unless, and until it is settled we will have God’s love in our hearts and it will just sit there.
We must receive God’s love. He has poured it out, but we still have to receive it.
Receiving God’s love means we have to receive Him. God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, not as a tangible ‘object’, but in Him as an expression of a heart which is towards us, and for us.
The Holy Spirit indwells as God’s love.
The Bible teaches us that we are perfected in love.
The Bible also teaches us that we are perfected by the Holy Spirit.
These are not conflicting statements, and they’re not saying two different things.
The first statement is the dynamic of how we are perfected; it is in the context and language of love.
The second statement tells us whom the person is who makes it possible, because love is entirely relational.
It cannot exist apart from a relationship.
If we receive God’s love then we have it.
If we receive God then we have Him.
This is a glorious, inseparable reality, with massive implications for our lives.
If you know you’re loved – if you know you’re fully and entirely a child of God – then you know you are free, and you know you are safe… ALWAYS!
Regardless of what external input you’re receiving about whether you’re loved or not, in your heart the love issue is settled.
This is the freedom necessary to love anyone.
Love God, love yourself rightly, love your spouse, children, family, friends, strangers… even enemies.
Jesus exercised this freedom perfectly.
Whilst we were still far off and enemies of God, Jesus dies for us to make us friends, brothers, sons, lovers.
There wasn’t then, and isn’t now, anything lacking in the love that the Father has for the Son, and vice versa, so Jesus didn’t die for us to fill a gap, or make up for something that was missing. He died for us because He had, and has, God’s perfect love and for Him the love issue is settled.
He knows He is loved when He rises from the waters of His baptism.
He knows He is loved when He is gloriously transfigured atop a mountain.
He knows He is loved when the Father offers Him the cup of suffering in the garden.
He knows He is loved when He is nailed to a cross and dying there with our sins – all of them – killing Him and crushing Him.
If you know you are loved then you know you are safe whatever is going on.
If you know you are loved then you are truly free to respond to the Father’s invitation to do life-giving and self-sacrificing acts of salvation for others.
The love issue must be settled.
For me the love issue was settled one afternoon at work when, for reasons I cannot now recall, I was in deep turmoil.
It was a downward spiral and I was truly overwhelmed, like I was drowning in waves too big for me.
In that moment, as I called out to the Father, He spoke these words into my spirit.
I am dearly loved.
I am intimately known.
I am valued beyond price.
I am precious.
Although the Father was speaking them into my being, they came in the first person, and so I was able to receive His word for me and pray His prayer for me.
In that moment the love issue was settled.
The love issue is settled for me – period.