Episode 1. The Sort of Love We Need
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With the images that Hollywood throws at us, not to mention the advertising industry – it’s easy for us to end up with a distorted sense of what love is. We know it’s the most important thing …
With the images that Hollywood throws at us, not to mention the advertising industry – it’s easy for us to end up with a distorted sense of what love is. We know it’s the most important thing in the world – so, it’s time to discover the truth about love.
The Truth About Love
Today we are kicking off the exploration of a subject that, well … it seems ninety percent of the songs written in my life time are about this very thing – love. From the moment we are born, we need love, both in the physical sense, because without parents who love us we would perish within a few hours. But in an emotional sense too, we need to belong to a family, to a community, to a team. That need to belong is perhaps the strongest manifestation of our need for love.
And if you think about the great joys and the great tragedies that you have experienced in your life so far, my hunch is that love – people who loved us, people who should have loved us, people whom we loved or failed to love – have stood at the centre of both the highs and the lows. Sadly, we live in a world where love, or more to the point, the lack of it, is killing people – and if not killing them, then robbing them of a fantastic life.
In the cities of Australia at least, fully one third of all households are single person households. Many people are lonely; many are unloved and so, I wonder what goes through your heart and your mind when you hear that old Beetles’ classic, “All You Need is Love” playing on the radio? I wonder whether it brings great joy to your heart, knowing that you’re deeply, securely, safely loved, or whether it just serves to highlight the pain, the regret, the shattered hopes and dreams. Well, may they sing, “All You Need is Love”, question is, where do you get it?
And despite the lyrics of that song that tell us, and I quote: “It’s easy”, – anybody who’s had anything to do with this thing they call “luuurve” will tell you that it’s anything but. I mean on the one hand, we’re wired to love and to want to be loved. And so we draw close to people – man and woman, parent and child, friends, dear friends – and yet the closer we draw to them, the more vulnerable we become. Because love is about letting people in.
Love is about intimacy and openness and transparency, which is why, the more we love someone, the more they can hurt us. And that’s so often what happens. Seems that one imperfect person can’t love and be loved by another imperfect person without both of them getting hurt on a regular basis. When we open ourselves to the imperfections of another, it’s going to hurt.
And you know, as I look at the enormous love that God shows for us through Jesus, never is this truth more true than on that cross. It cost God so much to love us because we, I … I am that imperfect person, you are that imperfect person. And He loved us with an intimate love that ultimately cost the life of His Son, in order to bring us close to Him again. Back where we belong. Love and pain are, my friend, two sides of the one coin.
So, here’s where I’m coming from. At the beginning of this year, I began praying for you and the many other people who will listen to this programme around the world each week – that this year wouldn’t be a year again of unfulfilled promises of happiness but that this year would be the year when you discover unspeakable joy. Have a listen to this. First Peter chapter 1, verse 8:
Although you have not seen him – (that is Jesus) – you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
And that indescribable and glorious joy has everything – absolutely everything – to do with love. Although you haven’t seen Him, you love Him. Love lies at the heart of joy. Without love, there can be no joy. I spent much of my life searching for happiness, in this trinket and that bauble, things that the world dangled under my nose. Things that promised so much! And yet each time I grabbed onto them, any happiness they may have contained, evaporated almost instantly, because I was looking for happiness in “things”.
That’s how it is with happiness. It depends entirely on our circumstances, which is why so many people – including quite a number who believe in Jesus with all their hearts – are unhappy. They grumble and complain over their circumstances. They are often overcome by a negative outlook on life … even though they love Jesus. Why? Because they’re searching for happiness in the midst of their circumstances. But they rarely find it there, because there’s always someone or something to rob us of happiness. And the disappointment of those unfulfilled promises of happiness makes unhappiness even worse!
Joy, on the other hand … joy is something completely different. Because it has nothing whatsoever to do with our circumstances. It depends on a relationship; a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. The same Jesus who came to this earth to suffer and to die for me and for you, so that we could have a deep, perfect, loving relationship with God.
And whilst this is the truth that lies at the very heart of the Gospel, the Good News – which is what the word “Gospel” literally means – for some reason we’re so thoroughly predisposed to missing it. Here is the Apostle John writing ostensibly to a dear lady, but many think he is writing to the church under persecution. Have a listen to what he says about joy and love and how they’re linked in truth. Second John, verses 4 to 6:
I was overjoyed to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as we have been commanded by the Father. But now, dear lady, I ask you, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but one we have had from the beginning, let us love one another. And this is love: that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning—you must walk in it.
The truth and love are intrinsically linked. And here John’s talking about love in two ways: loving each other, and the fact that loving God is about walking in His ways, in His commandments. Now this … this isn’t a particularly popular thing to suggest, because what it is saying is that in order for us to experience love, we need to do it according to God’s ways, according to God’s truth. And a lot of people – me included for a great part of my life – shy away from this whole idea of truth and commandments.
It’s counter cultural. It appears oppressive, doesn’t it?! Love on God’s terms. No, no! I want love on my terms. Well, let me ask you … how well has that been working so far? Because the way that you and I want to love is in a selfish way. Oh, we need love alright. But not this fantasy the singers dangle under our noses in their songs – not ‘luuurve’ – no we need the real thing. The sort of love that really makes a difference. First John chapter 4, beginning at verse 15:
God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and he in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.
See, that’s the sort of love we need – perfect love! The sort that casts out all fear.
Disappointed in Love
The world is full of people who are disappointed in love; people who would say that they have been “unlucky” in love. How often have you and I been bruised or damaged in love? How often have the very people who should have stood by us; who should have understood us; who should have … well, you know – failed us? Seems that there can be no love without pain, so here’s my hunch; this is what I think happens: we want to believe that God is perfect love; we really, really do. In fact, there is every chance we have signed up to that theory lesson – that God is in fact, love.
But when it comes to the practise; when it comes to the way we live our lives, well, that’s a whole different thing. Actually, I found it quite easy to sign up to the theory of a perfect God who loves us perfectly. It seems to make sense. I mean, if there is a God, if He is all powerful and all loving as they say He is, well, the notion, the concept that His love for me is a perfect love. Yea, that works. Don’t you think? Well it does for me, anyway.
But you see, my own dad was no more perfect a father than I have been to my children. We do our best, hopefully, but we make mistakes. And so we look at this idea that God the Father is a perfect Father and then we look at our own fathers and that kind of clouds the reality. And when we consider the hurts that love has brought us in life – those who should have loved us; those who should have understood us; those who should have persevered with us; who should have this and should have that, but who didn’t and the pain of those losses weigh heavily on the human heart. The scars so often harden our hearts, closing them to the truth – the wonderful reality of the perfect, faithful love of God.
So, the love of God – as much as we may subscribe to the theory; as much as we may sing the songs about it; as much as we may nod as the preacher expounds upon it – is something that many, many people just miss out on.
I have a friend who is a worship leader at the church he goes to. And as someone who stands at the front a lot, looking back at the rest of us who are worshipping in song, or at least that’s what is supposed to be what is going on … worship! This is what he said to me. He said:
Berni, you wouldn’t believe what I see. People’s faces are blank. Only a handful shows any sign that they’re truly worshipping God. The rest just seem to be going through the motions – distracted by this and that, looking at their watches, turning around to see who’s coming in late. Have they discovered how much God loves them? Have they experienced His love?
And you know, that’s something I see, time and time again as well, as I travel around visiting churches. It’s as though people – many of whom faithfully toddle along to church each Sunday – have died inside and the Spirit of God hasn’t been able to bring them back to life again. Have a listen to this: First John chapter 4, verses 7 to 11:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into this world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
See, what John is saying here to us in this Letter, is that God is love and that love comes to life in us – His love – when we accept Jesus and let the Holy Spirit do His stuff in us. You kind of look at the cross and this Jesus – this Son of God – bleeding, suffering, dying up there for you and for me, on that hill just outside Jerusalem a couple of thousand years ago. And that’s where you discover love. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans chapter 5:
Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were still sinners Christ died for us.
Over and over again, throughout the Bible, God is reaching out to us with a love; a perfect love; a completely unfathomable love that is the transcendent reality over all creation.
Wake up!! Look around! See the love that God has for us. And if today happens to be a day when we are surrounded by utter death and destruction; if today’s a day when we have been shaken to the foundations and beyond and everything that we took for granted as being permanent has collapsed around us, then as we turn our gaze towards this crucified Jesus, even in the midst of all the devastation that we can experience in life, the perfect love of God shines on our face with an unmistakable warmth.
My friend, this is not a love that we are called merely to provide intellectual ascent to – this is not a love that we are called to know about in theory – it’s a love that God beckons us to come close to and experience in reality; in the day to day reality of our lives.
As I travel around churches and preach of the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ, I will sometimes hand out small blank pieces of paper and ask each person present to write down a number between zero and ten, which represents how much God loves them. But I caution them before writing, ‘I don’t want the theologically correct answer; I don’t want the theory, I want the practice. In your experience; in your day to day walk, what is your experience of how much God loves you?’ And sadly … sadly the answer to that question consistently is that that survey returns an average of six out of ten.
Over this coming few weeks my passion is for us to discover in our own hearts – perhaps for some to rediscover – the wonder and the awe with which the Apostle Paul penned these words. Ephesians chapter 3, beginning at verse 16. He said:
I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
In other words, Paul want us to be rooted and grounded in this amazing love that is so huge that we can never completely get our hearts and minds around it.
On Solid Ground
Trees are amazing things! Have you ever watched them in a storm? Maybe a young sapling whose trunk flexes together with its branches in the wind or a tall, proud old tree with a solid trunk that stands firmly in the one place while the storm rages around it. For the tree, everything has to do with the ground it’s planted in. Firstly, the ground needs to be firm and solid. I mean, no good planting a tree in sand. That’s the sort that a strong wind can blow the tree straight out of the ground. Neither is it any good being planted on the edge of a cliff that is crumbling.
First of all a tree has to be planted into good soil, solid soil. But if you have ever done any gardening and planted new plants as they come out of the pot from the nursery, you will know they are often pot bound – they’re roots have kind of curled around and around the perimeter of the pot. And so when you plant a young tree, it could easily be blown over to start with because it hasn’t yet taken root; it hasn’t yet reached out and gripped, with a solid, vice like grip, into the earth.
Those root systems are amazing. Not only do they grow steadily downwards and outwards to seek out nutrients and water to feed the tree, but as they grow, in order to feed, they take hold of the soil so that they can’t be torn out of the ground in a storm.
And that, my friend is the picture of how things are meant to be when you and I discover the love of God. As we saw earlier, we are meant to put our roots down deep. Let’s take another look at what the Apostle Paul writes and really let it sink into our hearts. Verse 17:
That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith as you are being rooted and grounded in love.
And the way this happens is when we give Christ full sway in our hearts. Then like the tree, we put our roots down and become rooted and grounded in His love. Will you please notice with me, very carefully here, the Apostle Paul’s words – he speaks about us becoming both “rooted” and “grounded” in love.
Now, “rooted” speaks of the tree’s need to be nourished and so what it does is that it sends out this unbelievable network of roots, thicker ones branching into yet thinner ones and thinner ones still, ever further afield, ever deeper into the rich moist soil in order to drink in the nutrients and the water that will cause the superstructure of the tree – that part that you and I can see – to grow.
Now, imagine with me if you will, a lazy tree; a stubborn tree; a tree that refuses to send down its roots; a tree that refuses to be rooted in its soil. Imagine a tree whose pot bound roots just remain that coiled around a small root ball. Is this going to put forth lush, rich growth? Probably not. It will be likely be stunted; a sickly looking specimen with mean branches that don’t reach their full potential. Any fruit that does grow those branches, one thing is for certain, it won’t be the sort of fruit that it ought to be. It won’t be rich and sweet and brightly coloured; neither pleasant to the eye or palate.
This is the Christian whose roots have not gone down into the love of Christ. He or she is not rooted in the love of God. Well, may they occupy a pew each Sunday, apparently content to take up space, but beneath the surface there is no passion for Christ. Beneath the surface there isn’t a longing to draw away quietly and pray. Beneath the surface, there is no hunger for the Word of God. The roots aren’t reaching out into the love of God and so, what we have, is at best, a sickly specimen.
And as well as not being “rooted” in the love of God, neither is this Christian “grounded” in His love. Now the meaning of this word “grounded” is that the tree becomes stable and established. It has solid foundations, able to withstand a storm; able to withstand the tsunamis of life. And it turns out that being grounded is clearly a by-product of being rooted. See, the tree has sent out this massive root network, ever branching into smaller and thinner branches until mere capillaries nestle between the grains of the earth, sucking nutrition and water from the ground.
And all the while, as it is feeding the tree, this intricate root network, laid down, branch by branch, is taking a grip of the soil – a vice-like grip – something that anyone who has ever sought to uproot a tree will already have discovered. As we become rooted in Christ’s love – fed, nurtured and nourished by His love, so we become grounded in His love – solid, secure, able to withstand the storms of life.
That’s the picture here – the picture of a healthy tree. And as these roots reach out, ever further, ever deeper, here the prayer of Paul goes on for you and me, that in so doing:
… we may have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Here’s the picture: the tree’s roots keep spreading out – outwards and downwards into the love of Christ, to their full breadth and their full depth and the tree keeps growing ever higher as the roots keep going ever deeper. And what the tree is discovering – what we are discovering – is that by finding no limits to God’s love, in any direction, we are in fact, laying hold in our experience of the incomprehensively, infinite love of God as day-by-day, we search out His love.
Just as roots search for food and water, the branches search upwards for sunlight, we never run into the limits of His love – in any direction. And it’s only thus that we can know that which surpasses knowledge: the love of Christ.
That’s what this passage means! How does that compare do you think, to the lazy, pot-bound tree who just curls up its roots around this tiny root ball and fails to reach out in faith and go looking. It makes we want to scream sometimes; it makes me want to shake people who are living their lives like that, as a pot-bound Christian in the Kingdom of God.
Wake up!! Don’t you get it? We are meant to discover the amazing love of Jesus Christ by stretching out to Him – by praying and having quiet times and reading and drinking in the nutrients of His Word – letting the Spirit pump them around our spirits and souls as the sap brings life to the newest of buds on the farthest reaches of the tallest branches of the largest trees.