(This originally appreared in the March/April 1997 MCOI Journal)
I was raised in a Christian home but, in my teens and early twenties, I became very skeptical of Christian claims, the good book, and especially of God Himself. Looking back, I cannot say I really doubted the existence of God, although I think I made that claim. No, as I reflect on it, I did believe that He was there, but I did not like Him very much, or at least not the God I thought He was at the time. I can honestly say I did not know who I was rejecting, because I really did not know Him as I do now. I did not see Him as a Father, but as a judge; not as a friend, but as a powerful bully.
I truly enjoyed doubting God, finding supposed problems in scripture, discussing with my friends the deep and good reasons why we should not have to believe in God or, if He did exist, reasons to doubt He was good. It is strange to recall that all the while I doubted God, nevertheless, I thought my doubts were hurting His feelings. Yet, if I was truly convinced that God was NOT good, why would I suppose I could hurt His feelings? Illogical, as Spock might remark. Yes, perhaps, but it fits what we know about human nature: we are far more likely to test the forbearance of those whose goodness we are fairly sure of.
In my case, I vexed my mother with my doubts, and loved to throw up unanswerable (I thought) problems in her face. One Bible passage, in particular, I loved to hate was in Genesis 22 where Abraham was asked by God to asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on an alter. “What?!” I can hear myself say, “This supposedly good God is asking this man, whom He supposedly loves soooo much, to kill his only son (with a knife!!!) and then offer him up as a burnt offering on an alter? You have got to be kidding! This is sadistic! Sick! What kind of a ‘monster God would even ask such a thing???! What if He asks you to kill me? Would you do it??” And so forth … Deliciously enough, my mom didn’t seem to know how to answer that one at all, so I thought I “had her.” What a brat! Okay, so I had to endure my mother’s curse of “hope you have one just like you,” but I merely laughed in the face of danger and continued my daring taunts. (These curses cannot truly inspire fear until one is in a position to fully understand the implications of such things … when one has teenagers of one’s own … and then, of course, it is forever too late).
But, anyway, it is funny to me now, this passage of scripture, once proof enough for me of God’s basic barbarity, is now to me an awesome and wonderful picture of God’s love for us.
When we think in terms of the sacrifice made for us nearly 2,000 years ago, we naturally think in terms of the sacrifice made by the Son. Braveheart. He gave His life for you and me, and the enormity of that fact should never be obscured by the passage of time or by our familiarity with the event.
With that object in view, please allow yourself to consider this … Who would YOU die for? Your neighbor? … The paper boy? … A stranger? Maybe, but I think it is highly unlikely for most people. Add to that the torture angle. Not only must you die but, prior to that you will be whipped, publicly humiliated, beaten, stripped naked, and cruel men are going to hammer huge spikes into your wrists and feet and suspend you from these horrible wounds until you die an agonizingly slow death. Even a very courageous person would likely blanch at the thought, and some folks are under the bed just thinking about it. Would you endure such abuse even for a very good friend? Your husband or wife? Certainly, some have endured torture and even death for God or country, or familial love, but such self sacrifice is rare enough to be quite remarkable…
Then, we should consider how many would die for the likes of someone like John Wayne Gacy? Saddam Hussein? Larry Flynt? And yet, we know Jesus died for all of them as well as you and me. In the Bible, the book of Romans speaks to this very issue in Chapter 5:6-8, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man, though perhaps for a good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His great love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
While we were helpless, ungodly, and sinners when Christ chose to give His life on our behalf. Not mere “strangers;” we were ENEMIES of God. Such a strong term, Joy! Enemies?? Take a look around you. Ask yourself why so many of those who say they “disbelieve” in the God of the Bible are not neutral towards Him at all, but actively detest Him! Just like I did myself once upon a time. Did you ever wonder why that is? According to the Bible, though, even if one has no emotion of animus toward God, we all are born enemies of God just by being part of the rebellious race of mankind. But, Jesus Christ, who loves us, bore the agony of the cross for our reconciliation. Such an act of gracious heroism is rare indeed and is confounding in our vengeance-oriented society. We humans don’t get mad at those who hurt or oppose us: we get even … And self sacrifice is looked upon almost as a defect.
There is something, though, I believe would get me willingly up on that cross and, if you are a parent, maybe you can identify. A simple choice might do it … Mom or dad, either you or your daughter are going up on that cross; you or your son. We are either going to strip, beat, and torture your daughter and drive those nails into her flesh, OR … you can go in her place … what will it be? Parental love is so strong that, even from here, I can hear you say, “Take ME … I’ll go. Do what you must to me, but leave my daughter alone. Don’t touch my son!”
I am strongly reminded of the truth of this even today. An article in the Chicago Tribune starts out with these words, “A 14-year old high school student convicted of plotting to kill his mother was released Monday into the custody of the mother who said, ‘I love my son, and I have nothing to fear. He told me he was sorry,’” That really says it, doesn’t it? Her trust in her son may be foolish, but it gives powerful testimony to the unshakeable and sacrificial love of a parent.
That is the great love the Son has for us. It is so hard for us to accept His love at face value, but He loves us that much! As much as you love your son; as much as you’d die for your daughter. Torture and death on our behalf is the noble gift of the Son; to win your life and freedom.
But, what of the Father? How did He show His love for us? Think about this: You’d go up on that cross for your son or daughter. For whom would you GIVE your child whom you love so much? On whose behalf would I send my daughter to her death? Whose life and security would I purchase with the well being of my own son? NO ONE’S. Yes, so great is the Father’s love for me and you friend, He gave His only Son. From a parent’s eye view, an unbelievable sacrifice.
1 John 4:10 says, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
This is the connection we should draw from Genesis where Abraham is asked to make the supreme sacrifice. This example is given so we can, perhaps, conceive of the great sacrifice God made on our behalf thus to comprehend the depth of God’s love for us.
I don’t write this primarily to those who know God’s love and already have become convinced by their relationship to Him that He loves and cares for them. I speak to those who are vastly unsure of God’s love, who had been in cults or abusive churches, and the only emotion they feel from God is anger or disapproval, and the emotion they have for God is FEAR. I don’t say there is no such thing as a healthy fear of the Lord, one that brings us to a place of recognizing our need for forgiveness and a savior. But, if your fear does not lead to conversion, but an endless striving or, if conversion does not ease your fears, you’ve gotten the wrong message about God’s love and grace.
Some have missed the message of grace because religious traditions have gotten in the way. Yes, they have been taught about the sacrifice of Christ, but the simplicity of the gospel had been obscured by add-ons, such as purgatory, penance, indulgences, and novenas. No, “Paid in full” is the message of the cross. His death brings us life. His suffering gives us peace. His mediation offers us complete reconciliation.
Others have gotten the message that God merely sent a created angel, Michael, who became the perfect man Jesus, to earth to die merely to provide mankind with the opportunity to save ourselves through door-to-door preaching and other good works. Since there is such a great deal of work to be done to “seal the deal” and secure an eternal place in God’s Paradise, it is not surprising to me that the love and sacrifice of the Father and Son gets lost in the shuffle. The love of God always falls through the cracks of the works-based religions. And, logically, of course, an angel who became a perfect man could not atone for all mankind. A perfect man could, perhaps, serve as the ransom for one sinner, but only the son of God, who was Himself also God, had the worth to ransom us all. God is as much more above us as we are above animals; hence, the beautiful analogy that the Shepherd would lay down his life for his sheep. The Sheep/Shepherd analogy is not meant to depict a one-to-one correspondence or tit-for-tat! A sheep, even a perfect one, could ransom only one other sheep with his life, while the shepherd’s life would be work the entire flock and more.
Now, some may object by posing arguments such as these: “God is an invisible Spirit; if the Son were God, how could He be seen” Or, “if the Son of God is also God, how could He die” Good questions, ones that lead us to the very necessity of the incarnation! The Son of God had to take on humanity precisely so God could be seen, so God could lay down his life! A God of Spirit in heaven cannot do these things! Jesus was, and still is, “in his incarnation,” as Justin Martyr so aptly puts it, “God and man united.” He took on humanity in order to fulfill the law on our helpless behalf, to atone for our sins as the sin sacrifice, and to manifest God to mankind in the only way we could truly understand. John 1:18 says, “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” The Father has never been seen by men, the only begotten God, the God-man, has shown Him to us. When the disciple Philip asked Jesus to “show us the Father, Jesus answered him, “Have I been so long with you and yet you have not come to know me? He who has seen me has seen the Father … (John 14:8 and 9).
I read a story (I do not remember where) about a man who came across an ant hill in a farmer’s field and became inexplicably attached to it and vastly interested in the ants’ day-to-day affairs. Who can figure? We all know ants are common, lowly creatures, so far beneath this man that they were totally unaware of his presence, but that didn’t sop him from seeing them as his friends. He would drop little crumbs of food down so he could enjoy watching them “find” it.
One day, though, he looked up from this musing study of his dearly loved “friends” to see Old McDonald on his tractor making his way across the field, and he realized with horror that the ant hill, his ant hill, was right in the path of terrible destruction! Oh no!! What to do? He has to warn them! He knelt down as close to the hill as he could and told them what was coming and urged them to flee the coming destruction, but they could not understand what he was saying and, in fact, even did not seem to be aware of his efforts, or even of his existence. Things continued as before in Ant City. There were tunnels to build, dead insects to carry, and a queen to appease. Even if they could hear him, he realized in despair, they would probably think it was thunder or some other natural phenomena, since ants aren’t equipped to recognize the voice of a man. But, the farmer and the tractor kept getting closer. Calamity was near. In desperation, he tried scooping up the ants in his hands, but they bit him, and frantically tried to get away. How could he warn them! The it dawned on him; to communicate with his ants he’d have to become an ant! And that’s just what he did. Happy ending … at least for the ants who accepted his message. They followed him to safety and rebuilt Ant City in a safer location.
Now, of course, men cannot become ants, but God can do difficult things when He has a mind to! He has a mind to save you and me, so He allowed Himself to be born of a virgin girl in Bethlehem.
But Joy, you’ve spoken of the Father and the Son, clearly showing two persons, yet there is only one God? Yes, I know the nature of God is hard to grasp, but why should we be able to comprehend His nature entirely? God is a whole other life form! We are all very familiar with fire. Fire does not have our nature. It can generate individual flames, then come back together as one flame again. We don’t say fire cannot do these things because we cannot. We let fire be fire. And, we are all so familiar with it, we do not think about how strange it is. But, what if we tried to explain fire to someone who had no knowledge of it! How easy would that be? In the same way, we must let God be God.
As difficult as it can be to understand God’s nature, it can be even harder to comprehend his love for us. We’re ANTS, and we know it! And by nature, we DON”T love him, and we know that too. I am so glad I did not get stuck in my rebellious agnostic phase for too long. So many people I know seem to be stuck there, unwilling and unable to move to true discovery leading to true peace. Why is it some people do come to a place of loving God, while others hearts remain shut tight against Him?
Jesus, when asked what was the greatest commandment, said it was to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30). Wow! What an awesome task! How does a person do this? It is important to understand Jesus spoke these words to people who were still under the Old Covenant, and Jeremiah 31:33 tells us that under the New Covenant, sealed with the blood of Jesus, the laws or commandments will be written on our hearts. What does this mean? How do the commandments, the shalts and musts, the shoulds and oughts, come to be “written on our hearts”? Simple. Under the New Covenant, loving God becomes a RESPONSE to God’s love for us! We love Him, because we have come to recognize He loves us! Try as we might, we just can’t pull the horse with the cart. And all cults and false religions are man’s attempt to do that that. To love God by fiat. I’m gonna love him, I’m gonna serve him; then He’ll spare me, He’ll reward me, He’ll over look my faults. Nope, it just doesn’t work that way. It is the realization of God’s love for us that chisels our hearts, imprinting within the DESIRE to love Him in return, and then to please Him.
Think about it: if we could love God by an act of our will, it would produce much more “self satisfaction” than “God satisfaction.” In fact, you’ll never find any more self-satisfied folks than those who are convinced they love God more than anybody! There is no room for self love and self satisfaction in God’s plan, however. We do not and CANNOT deserve God’s love and only humbly can accept it.
Perhaps you are right now in a place of despair because you have tried and tried and failed and failed to love God, as you know you should. GOOD! That’s exactly the place you need to be to experience God’s marvelous grace. Grace is undeserved kindness! You’ve tried hard to give God what He requires from you, but now, Praise God!, you are standing in the receiving line. As many as received him, to them He gave the power to become sons of God (John 1:11- 12).
Or, maybe you have not tried to love God at all, because you feel that all you’ve gotten from Him is an unfair shake. I’m a pretty good person; why had God dealt with me so shabbily? Why am I alone, when everybody else has someone to care about? Or, why am I trapped in a marriage with a creep like Harry, when I could be free to meet someone who would treat me as I deserve? Where do those self-pitying thoughts come from? In part, they originate in our own fallen nature, but they are helped along by mankind’s oldest adversary.
Since loving God is so important – Jesus listing it as his number one priority or desire, it makes sense that it is the one truth most assailed by the evil one. “God doesn’t love you,” he whispers in your ear. “If God loves you, why does He allow adverse circumstances in your life? Why did your husband die, why are you stricken with cancer, why are your kids in trouble? Why, why, why?” The evil one and his friends are shooting at God, and they do their best to get all of us to join them! Even Christians can be persuaded to “shoot at God,” when we are assailed by doubts and fears. Yet, He is our dear friend. Do not allow adverse circumstances to turn you away from God’s love. Hold on to what you KNOW to be true, that God loved you enough to send his only Son to suffer and die on your behalf.
“What then, shall we say to these things?” If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the one who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:31-35). God is not out to hurt or bully you. He wants to be your friend. Please accept his offer of forgiveness, and make a new start with Him today.
Love to all,