God of Love
And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.
1 John 4:16
Ancient pagans spent much time trying to meet their gods’ demands and beg them for blessings. Sacrifices—even human sacrifices—were a central part of their efforts. Pagan peoples approached their gods the same way they approached other people because they created the gods (idols) in their own image. Because human beings can be unpredictable and vengeful, so the gods they created were the same. The character of the gods reflected the character of those who made them.
But the God of the Bible is different. He created mankind in His image, not vice versa. God’s character has been eternally the same, a character summed up in one word: Love. The Bible says “God is love,” and there is nothing that can separate us from His love as revealed through Christ. Everything God does is based on His character of perfect love. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love or favor. We are loved because He created us in His image to be loved by Him.
Don’t doubt God’s love for you today. Wherever you are in life, know that you are loved by the God who is love.
God’s love is not drawn out by our lovableness, but wells up, like an artesian spring, from the depths of His nature.
Leviticus 11 – 13
Throughout the Bible we are told to fear God. What does that mean? Can you give an example?We need to make some important distinctions about the biblical meaning of "fearing" God. These distinctions can be helpful, but they can also be a little dangerous.
When Luther struggled with that, he made this distinction, which has since become somewhat famous: He distinguished between what he called a servile fear and a filial fear. The servile fear is a kind of fear that a prisoner in a torture chamber has for his tormentor, the jailer, or the executioner. It's that kind of dreadful anxiety in which someone is frightened by the clear and present danger that is represented by another person. Or it's the kind of fear that a slave would have at the hands of a malicious master who would come with the whip and torment the slave. Servile refers to a posture of servitude toward a malevolent owner.
Luther distinguished between that and what he called filial fear, drawing from the Latin concept from which we get the idea of family. It refers to the fear that a child has for his father. In this regard, Luther is thinking of a child who has tremendous respect and love for his father or mother and who dearly wants to please them. He has a fear or an anxiety of offending the one he loves, not because he's afraid of torture or even of punishment, but rather because he's afraid of displeasing the one who is, in that child's world, the source of security and love.
I think this distinction is helpful because the basic meaning of fearing the Lord that we read about in Deuteronomy is also in the Wisdom Literature, where we're told that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." The focus here is on a sense of awe and respect for the majesty of God. That's often lacking in contemporary evangelical Christianity. We get very flippant and cavalier with God, as if we had a casual relationship with the Father. We are invited to call him Abba, Father, and to have the personal intimacy promised to us, but still we're not to be flippant with God. We're always to maintain a healthy respect and adoration for him.
One last point: If we really have a healthy adoration for God, we still should have an element of the knowledge that God can be frightening. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31). As sinful people, we have every reason to fear God's judgment; it is part of our motivation to be reconciled with God.
Love in Spite Of
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
The British Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, published her Sonnets from the Portuguese in 1850—a collection of 44 love sonnets. Number 43 is the most famous and opens with one of the most well-known lines in all of love poetry: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” The sonnet goes on to enumerate powerful ways in which the poet loves the beloved. But there is one way to love—perhaps the most important—that is missing. The poet never says, “I love you unconditionally.”
The most heart-wrenching question about love is not, “Do you love me?” but, “Do you love me in spite of what I have done?” Loving others when things are easy is not the true test of love. Rather, unconditional love is demonstrated in the face of sin. Fortunately, we have assurance from the apostle Paul that God’s unconditional love for us is not to be doubted. He loved us “while we were still sinners” by sending Christ to die for us. God doesn’t love us because we are good, but in spite of the fact that we are sinners.
Thank God today for His never-failing, unconditional love. And let His love be an example for how you can love others (Ephesians 4:32).
God’s love for his people is infinite and unconditional.
Leviticus 8 – 10
“I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”
- Malachi 3:6
“The only thing constant is change.” This saying is attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, one of the most significant Western thinkers to have lived before Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In making such a statement, Heraclitus captured what many others have also recognized, namely, that there is precious little that is stable in the world around us. Even the mountains, which appear to be so unchanging, are over millennia subject to erosion and other effects that slowly but surely alter their shape. But it is not just the world outside us that is unstable. Over time, we ourselves also experience physical, mental, moral, and spiritual changes.
Such realities drive us to seek stability. Because of sin, however, we tend to look for permanence in things that are also changing. Whether it is a relationship, our bank balances, familiar surroundings, or something else, we all too readily seek stability in the created realm. And, moreover, we are eventually disappointed by such things, for everything in creation is subject to change.
To find true stability and permanence, we must look beyond the created order to its Creator, for as Scripture tells us, God is unchanging. As we read in Malachi 3:6, the Lord God Almighty does not change. And as the prophet tells us, that should be a great comfort to God’s people. Jacob was not consumed because of the Lord’s unchanging nature. The old covenant community deserved destruction because of its great sin, but God did not utterly destroy them. He had made a covenant with them, and because He is unchanging He could not break His promises to preserve them (see Gen. 15). As Christians, we serve the same unchanging God who kept His promises to Israel.
Summarizing the witness of Scripture, question and answer 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism states that God is “unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” Our Lord is immutable—His character and being can experience no change or mutation (see Heb. 1:10–12). God cannot grow more or less powerful. He can never cease to be holy, just, good, or true. His wisdom and knowledge cannot be increased or decreased.
God’s unchangeability is bad news for impenitent people, for it means the Lord will not overlook their sin. But our Lord’s immutability is good news for those who trust Him. It means that He cannot fail to keep His promises to forgive us and to protect us forever (Ps. 46; Isa. 55:6–7).
Coram DeoWe live in a fallen world, and so it is easy to be fearful. Change is ever present, and not every change is positive. If we trust in Christ, however, we have no reason to be afraid. We are relying on the One who is incapable of changing and who will never allow His promises to fail. When we are fearful, let us remember that God and His goodness to us are unchanging; thus, we are ever secure in Him.
Passages for Further Study
When Thomas Jefferson selected the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” to describe one of the unalienable rights of man, he was appropriating an idea with a very long history. Since the time of Aristotle and before, happiness was understood as a condition to which all people properly aspire. But for the Greeks, as for the biblical writers, happiness was an objective reality, not just a feeling or an emotional state. The phrase “whatever makes you happy,” so commonly uttered today, would have been nonsense to Hebrews, Greeks, and Christians alike, since it implies no fixed moral order in which happiness resides.
Happiness is roughly synonymous with the biblical idea of “blessedness.” In classical and medieval Christian ethics happiness referred to a state of human flourishing or well-being that aligned the life of a person with the truest good. Actions, thoughts, desires, and ambitions had to be ordered in light of the proper end of mankind for a person to be truly happy. Happiness was thus an ethical, not a psychological project. To pursue happiness was to pursue the whole reason for one’s being, but that meant recognizing that one’s desires and actions were in need of correction. It meant accounting for the fact that human beings did not instinctively pursue the truest good, that some very attractive pleasures were not truly in keeping with the most essential contours of our nature. In Christian terms, the pursuit of happiness meant recognizing that God had created us to flourish in the context of obedience to Him so that our image-bearing nature might display His glory. Since our sin and consequent waywardness alienated us from our deepest, truest identity, the pursuit of happiness was only possible by grace, since we cannot by our own strength resist the disordering effects of sin in our lives.
So happiness on this historic account is really a function of sanctification, of growth in holy obedience. That formulation would no doubt come as a shock to most of our contemporaries, perhaps even to many Christians, though it would have probably caused a nod of affirmation from most pagan philosophers. How has it come about that a nation often assumed to be Christian, a nation also obsessed with pursuing happiness, has acquired such an anti-Christian understanding of what it means to be happy?
Part of the answer is tied up with the radical innovations in ethical thought that took shape during the eighteenth-century, the Enlightenment culture in which Jefferson was at home. It was a time in which philosophers were abandoning the idea of an essential human nature that defined human ends. It was, in a sense, an abandonment of the idea of sin, since these Enlightenment thinkers were quite willing to talk about (in Alasdair MacIntyre’s words) “untutored-human-nature-as-it-is,” and base their understanding of ethics and politics on a picture of an intrinsically innocent human nature. This was a time in which the freedom of the individual was becoming the ultimate good, for individuals and societies. The philosophies of the time when our nation was founded were committed to the idea of the individual as sovereign in his moral authority (see MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 62).
In such a context, the venerable idea of the pursuit of happiness took on a whole new meaning. Happiness came to be understood as whatever any individual conceives it to be. Since it could no longer be objectively defined in terms of a fixed purpose for human nature, the pursuit of happiness soon came to mean the pursuit of pleasure, the relentless quest for fun, for an emotional state of carefree bliss. And this state need have no correlation to the ethical choices one has made, to the way one has ordered one’s life. In fact, many Americans seem committed to pursuing this kind of happiness by means of making bad ethical choices: committing adultery, dishonoring their parents, killing their unborn children, abusing their own bodies. When happiness becomes merely a mood, the sustaining of which is the highest good, rules tend to get broken, like eggs in Lenin’s omelet.
In the twentieth century, aided by the rise of mass media and ubiquitous forms of entertainment, the pursuit of happiness-as-fun came to be felt as a kind of moral imperative. Writing in the mid-1950s, psychologist Martha Wolfenstein noted the emergence of what she called “fun morality,” an ethic that displaced the old-fashioned goodness morality “which stressed interference with impulses. Not having fun is an occasion for self-examination: ‘What is wrong with me?’ …Whereas gratification of forbidden impulses traditionally aroused guilt, failure to have fun now lowers one’s self-esteem.” Not only has happiness been detached from objective human ends and identified uncritically with personal pleasure, the pleasures assumed to be the source of happiness are increasingly the most trivial and fleeting. Submitting to the dictates of fun morality makes the passive consumption of entertainment a more plausible road to happiness than subtler, more demanding pleasures like learning to play the violin, acquiring a love of literature, or cultivating a beautiful garden.
As it happens, the dominant assumption that happiness is a custom-built project with potentially instant payoffs does not seem to have made most people that much happier. In a recent essay entitled “The Pursuit of Emptiness,” John Perry Barlow observes: “Of my legion friends and acquaintances who have become citizens of Prozac Nation, I have never heard any of them claim that these drugs bring them any closer to actual happiness. Rather, they murmur with listless gratitude, anti-depressants have pulled them back from The Abyss. They are not pursuing happiness. They are fleeing suicide.” Barlow reports on an experiment in looking for smiles on the faces of people in the “upscale organic supermarket” in San Francisco in which he regularly shops. In eleven months, seeing thousands of faces, “nearly all of them healthy, beautiful, and very expensively groomed,” he counted seven smiles, three of which he judged insincere. Instead, in supermarkets and elsewhere, he sees a characteristic “expression of troubled self-absorption [which] has become a nearly universal mask.” Trying to find happiness on our own terms, rather than on the terms our Creator has built into our nature, is an exhausting and disappointing undertaking.
Carl Elliott, author of the book Better than Well, perceptively documents how many Americans use various “enhancement technologies” in the effort to feel better about themselves (which may be the working definition of happiness for many of our contemporaries). Elliot senses that the American project of pursuing happiness has become so desperate that it now seems to require “not only that I pursue happiness, but that I pursue it aggressively, club it into unconsciousness, and drag it back bound and gagged to my basement.” The lengths to which people go to nab happiness are astonishing: the drugs they take; the fantasies they sustain; the money they spend; the relationships they poison.
There is something of a backlash against this militant happiness-seeking, this regime of relentless perkiness. Earlier this year, Eric Wilson’s slim manifesto, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, was greeted by a chorus of sympathy. Wilson questioned the virtue of striving to be perpetually upbeat, reminding readers that it is sometimes quite emotionally healthy to respond to the tragedies of life with darker sentiments. Other recent books have questioned the tendency to treat sadness as a mental illness. These protests are fine as far as they go, but they are still working with the assumption that happiness is a subjective state.
The recovery of a richer vision for human happiness is a project for which Christians are uniquely situated. We believe, unlike most of our contemporaries, that we are made to delight in the knowledge and love of God, to find our fulfillment as creatures only as we walk in His ways. Knowing also that we live in a world disordered by sin, we recognize that true blessedness will often, until Christ returns, involve suffering, persecution, and sacrifice. Our happiness is not a right, but a gift from one who was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. To the best of our knowledge, Jesus never asked the disciples: “Are we having fun yet?” But He did teach them that faithful servants would enter into the joy of their master. Happiness is the fruit of aligning our lives with God’s purposes for us. “If you keep my commandments,” Jesus promised, “you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:10–11). The pursuit of such single-minded faithfulness, not simple-minded fun, is the true road to human happiness.
I am overwhelmed by the thought today that Jesus has given everything he possibly could for us in the past (He died for you!); he is giving everything he possibly can for us in the present ( He daily intercedes for you!) and he will give everything he possibly can in the future for you (the new heaven and the new earth). He is the gift that keeps on giving!