We have trouble understanding and accepting the image of a loving God, as we have grown too familiar with the type of love that offers itself only when it finds in a person the qualities that make them easy to love.
Writer and professor Les Parrots recounts in one of his books a story about what it means to be unconditionally loved. The protagonist is a girl with a strange physical appearance. She was born with a cleft palate, and her crooked teeth and difficult speech had created an unsightly appearance, due to which she never felt loved outside her family. She was ashamed to admit that she was born with a deformed lip, so she made up stories about an accident that could answer the curious questions of her colleagues, being convinced that a disfiguration caused by an unfortunate accident would be easier for people to accept than one resulting from a birth defect.
In second grade she had a teacher that everyone loved, Mrs. Leonard. Something unexpected happened at the hearing test, a test that children took once a year. When Mrs. Leonard called the little girl to the chair to whisper a message to her, she expected to hear a common sentence, such as, “The sky is blue.” But that day, while the little girl’s ear was straining to capture the sounds as accurately as possible, the teacher whispered a few words that were going to change the little girl’s life and which, she believes, only God could have placed on her teacher’s lips: “I’d like you to be my daughter.”
Most of us are not born with a cleft palate that puts us unwillingly in the limelight, but we each carry imperfections that we camouflage, with varying degrees of success. And the main reason we try to beautify our imperfections is that we want to be loved and appreciated by others, a goal that seems easier to achieve if we put forward the best version of ourselves.
We are loved despite our imperfection
Being fully known and fully loved is an experience that every heart longs for, from the day Adam and Eve hid so that the eye of their Creator would not see their physical and spiritual emptiness.
We are aware, to varying degrees, of all the imperfections that plague our flesh and soul. Somehow, we resemble those products whose price is significantly reduced because they have defects, writes John Ortberg in a book suggestively entitled Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them. A cracked screen, a loose hem, or a stain that is difficult to remove, and the product ends up on the discount shelf, with a lower value and possibly a warning that the store does not change such products once it has disposed of them.
Similar to these products, we too have our cracks and oddities, even if these can only be seen up close. It bothers us to be labeled as such and we are outraged when we run into other people’s oddities but, in the end, the fact that we all carry our flaws on our sleeves or in well-hidden pockets is an indisputable reality, one that the Bible itself confirms: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.“
What is it then that makes these people so loved by God? Why does He forgive them after they come to their senses and treat them as if they had not failed so disappointingly?
In fact, far from being full of characters who deserve to be depicted on stained glass, the Bible presents a mosaic of characters with disappointing flaws and failures, notes Ortberg: David, the king after God’s own heart, who commits adultery and tries to hide his sin through murder; Solomon, the one endowed by God with great wisdom, that the kings of the earth marvel at, comes to worship gods carved by the hand of man; Peter, the disciple of the Lord who declares that he will accompany Him even in prison, denies and curses the One who is approaching the final step on his path as a Man of Sorrows.
The answer is that we are dealing with the God of second chances, writes Ortberg in his book Love Beyond Reason. This doesn’t mean that every now and then He chooses to turn a blind eye to our sins. On the contrary, Scripture teaches us that there will be a trial in which all the evil that has darkened our planet will be exposed, where justice will be done for everything that happened at Auschwitz, Tiananmen Square, or North Korean camps—a judgment that will analyse even the things that most people consider insignificant, such as our words.
But the cross remains the place where God’s eternal love meets His justice. The death of His Son offers the possibility of forgiveness (and eternity) to each of us who chooses to come to Him, despite all the failures and mistakes of the past. The Scriptures plastically depict all His earnest efforts to save all that can be saved: “He is the One who finds the lost sheep, who seeks the lost coins, who embraces the lost sons. His favourite department is that of the missing objects.”
He is the God of those who are hard to find and love, of the discouraged and the sinful, the God of all who long to start over.
Evidence of His love, presented in the Scriptures
We know that God is love. It is written on the pages of the Bible, stickers and bookmarks disseminate this message, and children in Christian families learn this simple yet grand truth in their first songs.
Although we have no problem accepting that God loves people in general, we may find it harder to digest the fact that we as individuals are the beneficiaries and recipients of this love.
Maybe we feel too unworthy to be loved. After all, He is someone we can’t keep anything from, who knows all of our hiding places and secrets, even the words we haven’t yet said.
Maybe we feel too insignificant to be loved. We are skeptical towards a God who has nothing better to do than to watch over billions of people and love each one of them. Or we may simply have a distorted view on love, built on our relationships with others.
Christian writer Cindi McMenamin says she was approached by a woman named Jean at the end of a speaking event during which she talked about God’s love. The woman said she had been struggling for years to feel God’s love, mainly as a consequence of a marriage that lacked love. She wanted to know how she could possibly experience something so abstract, considering she hadn’t even managed to get the affection she was supposed to have in a relationship as close as a couple should be.
The answer is to look into God’s Word and rely on the facts and promises we find there rather than on our own feelings, McMenamin writes. Unlike feelings that come and go and can switch, as a chameleon, from one colour to another, facts are the solid foundation to which we can return every single time. And what are the facts?
We were created by God, not just by a word, as was the case with the rest of creation, but His hands shaped the clay and gave it life, thus shaping the first man on earth. We were redeemed by Him when, through disobedience, we fell under the curse of death, and the Son took on the form of a man, coming to live a harsh and misunderstood life and allowing Himself to be crucified while suffering the punishment for mankind’s sins.
He chose us before we were born and even before the foundation of the world, to be His. He knows our name, our place of birth, and His eyes saw us before we were fully formed.
We could not get anywhere without His presence accompanying us and He will never leave us, as long as we remain with Him, for He loves us with an everlasting love. Before His ascension to heaven, Jesus gave His word that He would return for His children, so that where He was, they too would live for all eternity.
In fact, all of these deeds and promises must be accepted through faith, the only means by which God’s grace finds its way to us. And, as all other things we have, faith itself is the gift of God to us.
Through faith we come to understand that although we do not deserve such love, no one will ever love us more. There is nothing you can do to make God love you more (or less), writes pastor Craig Groeschel, emphasising that love is not just a characteristic or just an action of God, but the very essence of His nature.
A love story in which we are sought before we seek Him
We tend to believe that God is difficult to find, when in fact we are the ones who come up with all sorts of tricks to help us run away from Him, and when, at the end of our resources, we take the first hesitant steps towards reconciliation, we are actually responding to His countless loving efforts.
Whether we know we are far away but lack the strength to return (as in the Parable of the Lost Sheep), or we are not even aware that we have lost the Source of life (the Parable of the Lost Coin), we are always sought by God, and salvation is not a consequence of our efforts to find Him, but is the result of the way we respond to His attempts to draw us to Him.
God seeks us across our lifetime, offering us the gift of salvation, and the ball remains in our court as long as this offer is not withdrawn: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Revelation 3:20).
God does not give up on us easily, says Marvin Moore, editor of The Signs of the Times, in one of his books. Moore illustrates his statement with the example of the people of Israel, whose history is marked by disobedience and rebellion and who God gives up on (as a nation, not as individuals who continue to choose Him) only after Israel rejects Jesus, 1,500 years after He had freed their ancestors in Egypt.
“God is constantly on our step, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (…) From the moment we take our first breath and up until our last one, He is always looking for us”, points out Shawn Brace, author of the book suggestively titled, “Pursued by a Relentless God.”
Chosen by God
At times we transfer the conclusions we have come to in our relationships with others to the perimeter of our relationship with God—for example, when we convince ourselves that God has likes and, probably, dislikes and, consequently, the habit of sharing privileges according to these preferences.
But God cannot be suspected of exclusivism even when He makes explicit choices, says pastor Dwight Nelson, commenting on the choice of the Israelites as God’s special people.
Nelson quotes Old Testament specialist Derek Kidner in order to explain the role of this apparent favouritism: “His small nation was the bridgehead, not the border.” The Jewish people were not chosen for their special merits and not even in order to become a privileged depository of divine blessings, but to become a bridge between pagan, idolatrous peoples and the God who loved them before they had learned anything about His existence.
God can still choose a similar way of working today, “turning His heart to one to win them all,” Nelson concludes, emphasising that the reason Divinity can reveal to some the truth stored in the Word to a greater extent has nothing to do with their intelligence or worthiness, but with a God “with a great heart, who still longs to save, if possible, a whole lost world.”
The Apostle John assures us that we have already received the proof that we are chosen, name by name, life by life, in the eternal plan of heaven: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
The high school years taught me important lessons about what it means to (not) be elected. Sport was the thorn in my overcrowded school schedule that stung me twice a week and the subject that contributed to the collapse of my quarterly grade. I didn’t excel in running or floor exercises, and I had never excelled in handball either. Except for that day when I was chosen (I still don’t know why) to be a goalkeeper, on which occasion I ended up with my hand in a cast after trying to deflect the ball from its stubborn trajectory towards the goal. Because of this, it’s easy to guess how often team captains would scramble to pick me whenever they selected their teammates. In the worst case scenario, a bad player didn’t even need to get chosen, because he was heading to the team with the fewest players on his own (it was somehow uncertain if the team was getting richer or poorer with the addition of this new player).
On the other hand, the moment when players were distributed into teams was far more unpleasant for the player who had to wait until the very end, longing to be chosen, while knowing for sure that no one would choose him, and for very good reason.
To not be the most beautiful, the most athletic, the smartest (quite the opposite), to fall far short of the score that would make one eligible, and still get chosen—could there be a more beautiful definition of love? It is an extraordinary thing for someone to choose you despite having many more advantageous choices at hand. The beauty of God’s choice is not only that He recognises the uniqueness and value of each person, but also that no one is chosen to the detriment of another.
So many billions of people on Earth, but one cross and one calling, which bypasses no one, as unworthy as he or she may be: “I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.