During Advent, we talk this ‘story of amazing love’: a God who so loved the world that he ‘put on flesh’ (incarnated), became human, and took our death penalty upon himself (John 3:16-17). In many different places, the Bible is clear about why that happened: Jesus loves us (1 John 4:19; Romans 8:35-39). This past year we talked for a couple weeks about how Jesus’ love empowers and changes how we love others: “Love others as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)
As plain as that command is, it goes through a filter. Many of us think we know what it means that God loves; we think that the love we pass on to others is reflective of that, yet at times we recognize that we don’t understand what it means that God loves us, and we see that we have a terrible time loving God and others well.
So let’s talk this morning about how we get past our filters and misunderstandings and learning to understand the love of God.
First, God’s love will never be seen perfectly in people. None of us are Jesus. Because of the work of the Holy Spirit in surrendered lives, we are being transformed into his image, and we are becoming more and more like Christ. But we won’t nail it until we are in Heaven, so on this side of eternity we will fail to adequately represent what the love of Jesus looks like.
We have to be ready for this. We will inevitably distort the genuine nature of godly love and so will others. I don’t mean to be depressing; I’m just trying to be honest. With God’s help, we will often represent God’s love well, but we will never be perfect.
One thing I’ve been learning is that, as meaningful as it when I see God’s people loving well, they can never fully represent to me what God’s love looks like. I have to take people off a love pedestal.
That doesn’t bring me despair; that actually brings me hope. God’s love is better than even the best love that I have experienced when it comes to human love. God’s love is deeper, more faithful, more present, more life-changing, more holy and pure. Awesome. I love the glimpses I get from others, but I’m never going to mistake them for the fullness of the kind of love God has for me.
That gives me the freedom to see failure in others and not be disillusioned. It gives me the freedom to take people off a pedestal and let them be people instead of wishing they were perfect like God. And it gives me hope that people who do it so badly still bring such tremendous love into the world. If there is this much good in a fallen Earth, I can’t imagine the goodness in the New Heaven and Earth.
Second, God’s love is supernatural.
In the Bible, the word for the love God has for us – the word for the highest love – is agape. The Greeks used a number a words for love:[i] there is one for erotic love (eros), one for friendship love (philia), one for family affection (storge) and one for self-sacrificial love (agape). In the Greek literature we have recovered, there is very little use of agape. In the New Testament, it is used 320 times. The church took a seldom used Greed word, redefined it, and introduced a radical new way of understanding love.
Agape love is not like a brotherly love or a love between a husband and a wife. It is the most self-sacrificing love that there is. This type of love is the love that God has for His own children. This type of love is what was displayed on the cross by Jesus Christ. In John 3:16 it is written that “God so loved (agapao) the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
Through common grace, all other forms of love are accessible to everyone. Not this one. If I am reading Scripture correctly, no one can experience or give agape love apart from the supernatural work of God. Agape love is God love. “Anyone who does not love (agape) does not know God, because God is love (agape).” (1 John 4:8). So what does this look like?
“Jesus gave himself up for us. Jesus the Son, though equal with the Father, gave up his glory and took on our human nature (Phil 2:5ff). But further, he willingly went to the cross and paid the penalty for our sins, removing our guilt and condemnation, so that we could be united with him (Rom 6:5) and take on his nature (2 Pt 1:4). He gave up his glory and power and became a servant. He died to his own interests and looked to our needs and interests instead (Rom 15:1-3). Jesus’ sacrificial service to us has brought us into a deep union with him and he with us.“ (Timothy Keller)
John Piper has noted that there are several ways we can see the depth of love.  Three stood out to me: the costliness of the deed, the undeservedness of the recipient, and the greatness of the benefit.
If I get my wife a sucker after a day when she has catered to my every whim and say “I love you,” that’s easy to say and easy to show to someone to whom I kind of owe a loving response. But if I plan an elaborate date night at Stellas after a week full of tension and anger that was all Sheila’s fault and I say “I love you,” that’s hard to say and costly to show to someone to whom I had every reasons not to give a loving response.
Jesus gave his life for people still at war with God, and in so doing he ensured forgiveness of their sins and eternal life. It is the greatest love story of all time, and it’s the only one of its kind. The cost was a crucifixion for people who deserved death, and the benefit was fullness of life now and eternal life to come. There is no other name under heaven that offers that kind of love (Acts 4:12).
Third, having and showing God’s love is not something we do on our own.
“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (I John 4:16)
“We love him because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
We don’t love him because we study the Bible. We don’t love him because we pray, or sing. We don’t love him because of we are in awe of his character, or because we study his world and admire his handiwork. Those can all build our faith and love as we learn about God, experience God’s presence, and surrender ourselves, but that’s not why we love Him. We love Him because He first loved us.
God loves people. Not because he needs us. Not because we complete him. Not because we are worthy, or lovable, or pure, or spiritually impressive. Not because we please God or represent Him well. Not even because we are His children. He offers to make us His children because He loves us, but He doesn’t love us for that reason. “While we were yet sinners” – that is, before we were His children – “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). As one pastor noted,
While eros and philia thirst, agape simply overflows. This means – please stay with me here – that God’s love for us, in the end, has absolutely nothing to do with us. In other words, God does not love us because of who we are. Or because of what we do, or can do for God. Or because of what we say, or build, or accomplish, or change, or pray, or give, or profess, or believe… God simply loves us…
God loves because God is God. If He is love, He must love in same way that if God is truth, God must be truthful. We earned nothing. We deserved nothing. We were spiritually dead; our rebellion against God was killing us and ruining the world. And God loved us, because God is love.
- When I pray regularly and passionately, God’s love does not fail. When I don’t, God’s love does not fail.
- When I was chained in sin and when I was freed…
- When I ignore Him and when I am enamored with Him…
- When I am depressed or happy, anxious or at peace, self-loathing of self-loving…
- When I pastor well and when I do it terribly…
- When I am loved by others and despised by others…
God’s love does not fail, because God’s love has nothing to do with how good or deserving I am, and it has everything to do with God. If you ever think, “How can God possibly love me? I’m a disaster,” take heart: God has never waited to love people until they were good enough to be loved. He loves people because He is God. And that gives me great hope indeed.
Fourth, God’s love helps us love others well.
When we have trouble loving God or others well, we often focus on how to love better. That’s a good and necessary focus, but it’s the wrong starting point. We need to first refocus on the one who loves us. We need to experience and understand God’s love.
If a person is not loving, John says, he or she does not know God (1 John 4:8). How will that individual become more loving, then? Can we grow in love by trying to love more? No, our attempts to love will only end in more frustration and less love. The solution, John implies, is to know God better. This is so simple that we miss it all the time: our means for becoming more loving is to know God better. (Marva J. Dawn, Truly the Community: Romans 12)
The fact is, I need God to help me love God. And if I need His help to love Him, a perfect being, I definitely need His help to love other, fault-filled humans. Something mysterious, even supernatural must happen in order for genuine love for God to grow in our hearts. (Francis Chan, Crazy Love)
Other theologians such as C.S. Lewis talk about the importance of acting loving even if we don’t feel it. I agree with them in the sense that we ought to be committed to doing the right thing even if we don’t feel like it, and in so doing we often find that the proper emotions follow. But that’s not the ultimate solution.
We are thirsty, thirsty people. We long to know that we have worth, and value, and beauty. We ache to belong, to be included. But we run around our whole lives going after the sorts of love which will never completely satisfy this thirst. But in Christ, in the agape love of God, we find a love, the only love, which can fill us, and satisfy us so that we find ourselves, now overflowing, finally able to also love in a way that no longer seeks to take, but only to give.
Yes, Jesus wants you to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. Jesus wants you to love your neighbors as you love yourself. He wants us to love with agape love. But if we try to love others, even God, like this without first realizing that we are already loved like this, all our efforts will only lead to despair. You see, agape love never flows from us. It only flows through us from the one who loves like we, on our own, never could.
 See also Romans 5:5; 8:35-39; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Gal 5:22-23; Ephesians 3:17-19; Philippians 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; 3:5; 1 John 4:7-21)
 I John 4 and 5 are also excellent chapters to read concerning how God’s love changes us into the image of Christ.
 There is discussion in Christian circles about whether or not God loves every individual the same. What you conclude is probably connected with your view on election (some Calvinists argue that God only loves the elect; Arminians argue God loves everyone). This article offers a helpful discussion on this issue. http://www.gty.org/resources/questions/QA193/does-god-love-whom-he-does-not-save