He Loves Me Marvelous Well

I was eating lunch a few months ago with a very dear friend, when something rather unexpected happened:

Tears began to well in my eyes.

Now, to be fair, I’m what you might call an “emotional” man; crying comes easily for me, especially as I read books, watch movies, and listen to music. But ask any of my friends, and they’ll (hopefully) tell you that I’m not one to make a habit of weeping during lunchtime conversations shared over hot wings.

Yet as my friend spoke in-between bites of french fries, I found myself fighting back tears -- all because of one question he had posed at the beginning of our discussion:

Do you truly believe that God loves you?

That seemingly simple inquiry knocked me off balance, to say the least. At first blush I wanted to say, “Of course I believe that God loves me!” But as I continued to chew on my lunch and the question, I started to wonder: did I truly believe that God loved me?

The One Word

When the apostle John wrote a heartfelt letter to one of his troubled churches, he placed a similar line of thought before his congregants -- only he didn’t pose it as a question; he stated it as an unshakable reality.

“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).

What a remarkable sentence! Think of some of the words that we associate with God: words like holiness, righteousness, perfection -- all words that correctly convey something of who God is as he has revealed himself in Scripture. Yet when John chose one word to describe God, he didn’t say that God is holiness; he didn’t say that God is righteousness; nor did he say that God is perfection. He said that God is love. In other words, the almighty creator of the universe, who sustains every molecule by the mere word of his power (Hebrews 1:3), who will one day judge all people and rule with unquestioned authority (1 Corinthians 15:24-26), and who knows all of our darkest thoughts and greatest sins (Proverbs 15:11) -- this same God has chosen to disclose himself most preeminently by his love. This is absolutely stunning, almost beyond belief. And yet it is gloriously true!

But as we dwell on this extraordinary reality, we’re likely to find ourselves nagged by a pesky question: what does it mean when John says that God is love?

It seems that everyone who’s anyone has written or remarked or blogged on the co-opting of the word “love” in our modern American context, some more convincingly and forcefully than others. I’ll not rehash such arguments here, but suffice to say that “love” has become a stretchy and vague word that is often difficult to pin down; we say that we love pizza, we love our favorite TV shows, we love our children, and on and on and on. Do we mean that we love all of these goods in the same manner and with the same intensity? And what about God then? When John tells us that God is love, does he mean love in the same sense as our love for pizza? Thankfully, John defines his terms and addresses our hounding question.

This is Love

“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. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9–10).

Through the words of John, God has not only said that he is love; he has shown that he is love. We find the definition for God’s love not in a dictionary, but in beholding Christ upon the cross. God in Christ, as the purest fountain of love, spills over in self-denying obedience and self-giving sacrifice for our sake. Indeed, even when we were his sworn enemies, even when we hated him, even when we utterly abhorred his love, Jesus still died for us (Romans 5:8).

Oh, what awesome and marvelous love belongs to this glorious God whom we worship! We cannot leave his presence unchanged. “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Such love demands everything from us -- but not before it first gives up everything for us (Philippians 2:5-7, Romans 8:32). Who could have dreamed up such love in their wildest imagination?

Do I Believe?

I still ponder that question my friend asked me. Do I truly believe that God loves me? Sometimes, I even go so far as to wonder what I would say if Christ were to suddenly appear before me and ask the question himself. “Beloved, do you truly believe that I love you?” In the words of the old hymns, when I survey the wondrous cross, or when I think that God his Son not sparing sent him to die, it is difficult not to believe that God loves me. But at the same time, that staggering love forces me to acknowledge the reality of my ugliness, my unworthiness, my sin. How could anyone ever merit such unfathomable love? I certainly cannot. In fact, it was my sin that Christ bore upon the cross. He came to pay a penalty that I incurred. The haunting truth is inescapable.

And yet -- and yet, Christ comes down from that horrid cross, rises again, and gently lifts my chin; “I forgive you,” he says as I blubber over in confession (1 John 1:9).  

And it is there, in the shadow of the cross and the light of the risen Lord, that I find it all magnificently true: I do believe that God loves me. As the puritans might have said it, he loves me marvelous well. The question now is: do you? Do we, together as Christ’s church, truly believe that God loves us?

On our best days, I pray that we believe it with all our hearts; and on our worst days, I pray that we believe it even more. I pray that we will always go running back to our loving Father, confessing our sins and receiving the mercy and grace he will so lavishly give to us. I pray that we make the words of Paul our sweetest refrain: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, ESV, emphasis mine).