How many of you doubt yourselves? How many of you doubt that you are loved by God? More importantly, how many of you can say you are loved by God, but you don’t really ever feel it, or you don’t know why its there? In our first meeting, David asked how people thought God saw them, we got answers like lost, undeserving, failure, things like that. I see myself that way as well. I don’t really like me. I’ve never thought of myself as somebody that somebody else can like or want to be around any longer than when you’re already scheduled to be around me. The longer story I’ll keep to myself, but a large part of it is a symptom of the fact that I am a) predisposed to negativity (meaning I’m a bit of a cynic) and b) almost entirely rational. I’m not the most emotional person you’ll ever come across but I can analyze and recite and do things that I imagine a professor might do, if I wanted to be in front of people that often. A side effect of this cold focus on reason is that I have a functional relationship with people. I know it’s there, but I don’t really embrace it. Partly because I don’t know what it looks like to embrace a friendship, and partly because I really never care to.
When something that a more shall we say “emotionally inclined” person might call “warm” occurs, I am likely to question it, and will rarely embrace it. This isn’t just with people either, this runs up to and includes (and like all things, is magnified by) God. And every time, when I’m with David or when I’m at the church, I hear 80% of the time, some effect on “God loves me”, and I have no idea what to do with that. This is something I imagine that a lot of people struggle with. Despite what we may think of ourselves, or whatever we think God sees us as, we do, in the back of our minds have ideas like “God loves me” and Christ dying “for me” in their nice little drawer next to all the other stuff that’s cool but we don’t really know how to deal with it. I find myself asking, because I can’t imagine not asking, why Christ would die for me, why God cares and why I’m not left alone to live in my own head.
With one exception, I’ve usually gotten some ridiculous platitude. It’s usually been a trite reiteration of John 3:16, someone will say “God loves you because he just does” or some other surface level idea. 1 John says “We love Him because He first loved us”, doesn’t answer why. Romans 1-3 gives a withering indictment of the human race, and then culminates in chapter 8 talking about how God through Christ reconciled us to Him and how nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us, but doesn’t answer why.
TRYING TO ANSWER WHY
Now, just so this doesn’t turn into a long, convoluted story, we’ll walk through the issues together. Welcome to my head. First, we’ll be asking why God and Christ, separately, loved people, if we can look at Christ as just a man. We’ll then see why that may not register with people less in tune with their heart than their head and at least try to imagine what that looks like to embrace it.
Very quickly, the distinction I make between the head and the heart comes from one of my favorite writers, H.L. Mencken, who once described love as a “triumph of the heart over the mind.” I’m not endorsing the sentiment necessarily, just the distinction. He meant, essentially, that the mind is cold, rational and trustworthy, the heart is none of those things.
Anyway, as a starting point, we know, or at least can say or have to believe that God loves us despite our flaws. It’s what we declare in worship, hear in the sermons at church and read in the Bible etc. So there’s at least this niggling intellectual concept of the idea that we are “loved” (the degree to which is not ascertained) by a God who is more familiar with our flaws than we are. These flaws lead us to retreat and question. Why does God love us or why did Jesus die for us?
The best answer for the latter, that I can surmise anyway, was out of complete devotion to God to the point of death. Even in the Gospels there’s no deep explanation for why Jesus himself loved people. Look at Matthew 14:14 as Jesus is seeing a large crowd, we are simply told he “had compassion on them and healed their sick”. He then proceeded to feed the crowd as well. Several commentaries I read on this verse don’t have anything on why. He just did. What one (John Gil’s) did say was that the “why” should not phase us. It’s not irrelevant, technically, but it is more important that we reflect the compassion Christ showed the crowds and shows us. But we are here to find a deeper answer on why, so we must move to something else
So let’s consider two other options. First, that the creator is personally invested in their creation. There are two ways to see this, one just because he loves his creation (i.e. humans) does not mean he isn’t disappointed or downright resentful of us, so there is still reason to sort of wallow in that guilt. The other way, however, is to see ourselves as what we are, children of God. This is the sort of relationship from a father to a son or daughter. Now, we are not, strictly speaking, Children of God in the same why Christ is, but we are considered his children. We move to Psalm 139. First, a nod to the mandatory single-verse cliche, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Now, the point of this entire psalm is that we are created and known. On this, Charles Spurgeon elaborates: “We cannot begin too soon to bless our Maker, who began so soon to bless us…the science of anatomy was quite unknown to Psalmist, yet he had seen enough” that it guides him to express a deep love of the creation and an incredible reverence to its creator. While the psalmist worships God, and declares that the mere act of creation is reason to praise him. He is so admiring, that he forgets to ask why this happened. The closest the psalmist comes is to instead ask in awe “who is man that you are mindful of him”? (psalm 8). We, along with the psalmist do not understand why God is concerned with us at all, let alone the degree to which God is concerned. I am aware, by the way, that there are some who do not have good relationships with their parents, I am one such person with my dad’s side. But we’ve already established, we are dealing with a God who loves us and sent someone to die in our place. Our relationship with our earthly parents, do not have any bearing on our relationship with our heavenly one.
Whatever you make of that, why God loves may not be for us to know. What follows here is from my pastor, Matt Koerber. When I was really trying to answer this particular question, he suggested that “why” Jesus loves, or why God loves us is one of those things that is beyond the limits of what we can fully know. Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, the things he has revealed belong to us and our children.” Matt surmised the knowledge that God’s love is free has been revealed to us. Why exactly God chose to do this, however, is not. He says what we need to do is “to understand the limits of what we don’t fully know. When we ask questions about why God would love us we have entered that ground. God’s love is free and his reasons exist within himself. We know that he often chooses the weak and the foolish (thank God, I say) over the strong and the proud. But if we are going to guard against the dangers of pridefully claiming to deserve God’s favor then we have to admit – as the bible clearly says – that his love is free.”
HE JUST DOES
So what we find is that “Why”, a very basic question, is either unanswerable, or at least does not lead to the most full or complex answer that however long we’ve been asking this damn question would seem to unearth. So, what if it’s true that “God loves us because he just does”? What is the one who thinks significantly more than he feels to do with the idea that there is no answer. To put it in our context. As the writer H.L. Mencken once said. One who is more familiar with darkness, to the point of almost being comfortable, when he sees flowers will look for a coffin. His first thought when he sees flowers is “who died?”, when he leaves a gathering “Why do they care”, when it comes to God’s grace “Why is worried about me”. There has to be a casket somewhere. There must be something I’m missing. This is where someone might inevitably say, “This is where faith comes in”. After all, don’t we read in Hebrews “faith is assurance in things we cannot see”? Well, yes, it is. But faith is also primarily a heart issue. We are looking to satisfy the mind.. So what does it mean that we have all these things that we know intellectually about God? That we don’t deserve any of what we’re given and that there’s not going to be an answer as to why all this is true? If we desire a true relationship with God, the reason must be a bridge to faith. Simply put, while we may not trust the heart, we don’t really have a choice. In order to have a complete relationship with God, it can’t be strictly intellectual. We have to approach (if not yet embrace) faith.
I started tonight by reflecting on how people think God sees themselves as a failure, broken that sort of thing. I wonder if that’s how people see themselves as well. If you can’t really feel God’s love, then think about your closest friends. We are more aware of all of our flaws than probably anyone in our lives, but our closest friends, I imagine, know our worst aspects, and yet they stick with us. The people in my church, for instance, are vastly aware that I am not very expressive. I’m a cynical, borderline recluse who serves but doesn’t talk, to anybody, really. Who could love that? Turns out, more people than I first thought, I’m reminded that appreciation just passing by some people at teardown. I’ll tell a story later, but the point I’m making here is that questioning “why?” and hinging the acceptance on whether I get a “satisfying” answer may be missing the point and you just have to live with the answer you have, even if it only registers as “they care about you because they just do”.
I don’t mean to say, that your thoughts on this will or should change overnight. .One of the lessons barked at me that this essay finally made clear is that nobody expects a 180. Nobody expects an introvert to become the center of attention or for someone who works behind the scenes to jump on stage, nor for the cynic to become Joel Osteen (though I imagine that brand of optimism is actually cynically motivated).
To bridge this gap, I’d like to read Henri Nouwen, a passage from his collection called “The Inner Voice of Love”. It’s called “Enter the New Country” and some quick thoughts.
“You have an idea of what the new country looks like. Still, you are very much at home, although not truly at peace in the old country. You know the ways of the old country, its joys and pains, its happy and sad moments. You have spent most of your days there. Even though you know that you have not found there what your heart most desires, you remain quite attached to it.
Now you have come to realize that you must leave it and enter the new country. You know that what helped and guided you in the old country no longer works, but what else do you have to go by? You are being asked to trust that you will find what you need in the new country. That requires the death of what has become so precious to you.
Trust is so hard, since you have nothing to fall back on. Still, trust what is essential. The new country is where you are called to go, and the only way to go there is naked and vulnerable.
It seems that you keep crossing and recrossing the border. For a while you experience real joy in the new country. But then you feel afraid and start longing again for all you left behind, so you go back to the old county. To your dismay, you discover the old country has lost its charm. Risk a few more steps into the new country, trusting that each time you enter it, you will feel more comfortable and be able to stay longer.
The person living in the old country, in self-doubt, in cynicism, in darkness who has finally become sick of it, doesn’t know where to go. Moreover, it doesn’t look attainable. Nevertheless, this radical change is what the person’s journey might hinge on. He might say “If I can’t fully embrace this right away, which I probably can’t, why pursue it at all?” However, the notion of “radical change” is subjective. After about 3 years, I joined in on two games in a small group on Sundays at Memorial Park, last month I sat in a crowd of 300 people and met a new person, and now I’m talking in front of you.
So, now I get to ask you what David and Ben ask every so often to me. What would it look like to fully embrace the idea that you are deeply loved? I have no idea. I’m in the middle of that process. When I think about that, I’m still stuck on the idea of exploding into some insufferable extrovert trying to compensate for time spent in the cave. All I have is to work with is this: It has taken me about three years on and off of serious work to get to the point of realizing that cynicism, pessimism whatever you want to call it, while it will always have its place, can metastasize into the worst type of self-denial and even self-dislike. For a time, you don’t realize you’re in danger, you don’t realize you’re hurting yourself and you don’t realize what you’re giving up, there are people who care about you that want to guide you out of wherever you are, they can’t find you, and you don’t intend to tell them. Because this old country while increasingly uncomfortable, is still something you are more familiar with than anything. Bear in mind that “familiar” is not the same as “good”, a years long addiction to something is familiar, it might be comfortable, but it is not good.
The idea that you are loved deeply, after having seen yourself for so long as a failure, or lost or whatever, and believing that God sees you the same way is a very difficult thing to break free of, especially if you’ve ruminated on it for a particularly long time. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable. But the idea that God sees you as a failure or ruminates on your flaws and does not love you is not true, and you can get rid of that idea. And to elaborate on that, I’ll make one last point about a relationship with God, and one more about a relationship with people.
I believe that words have lost their power in this age, and the political sphere is primarily to blame for this, however, everything we know has been repeated ad nauseum and without passion. Churches casually recite the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a host of other platitudes. Now, there’s nothing wrong with those creeds or prayers or Scriptures, it’s the lacking power in the recitation. There are two words I want to point out one I want to focus on, “redeemed” and “ransomed”. Redeemed I can’t do much with, it’s such a common term because we “redeem” a gift card or a coupon or something. Ransomed on the other hand, there’s no softness there. Matthew 20:28 “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”. 1 Timothy 2:6 “The man Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all”.
Ransom implies hostage, what are we held hostage to? What do we have now that we need to be saved from? We need to be saved from the weight we put on ourselves. When we’re alone or, for some of us, in a group, and we see ourselves as broken beyond repair, the kind of person nobody could care for, let alone love, those thoughts control us. The thing is, the weight gets heavier over time because after a while you start to believe your own negative hype. “This is the truth, this is it, I and everyone around me is better off if I’m alone, people are dealing with me as little as possible, and I’ll just spend my time working or with my nose in my phone.” And yet, God has put people in your life who care about you, he sent his son to die for you. That comes from God and this does not happen if you are not, in some way or another, loved. And the fact that you are loved at all, to say nothing of the incredible degree to which you are cared for, means that weight is useless. So, what we need to do, and this is as much a challenge to me as to you, is to get rid of the weight, and you’ll start with this. Think about your best friend, someone who saw you through a tough time, who has seen you at your worst. Were they there out of a sense of obligation? Was there anything in it for them helping you? Probably not. They love you because they love you. Now think about God. Does He love out of a sense of rigid obligation? We’ve mentioned that he doesn’t. His love is freely given. Is there anything in it for him? Not really, he has everything already. He loves you because He loves you. This is the posture we need to learn to adopt. If we are able to just accept the love that we are given, and let it just soak in, we may see ourselves differently, and God may be pulling us in that direction. I can say in my life, there have been sort of guided moments that point to something better once I start to embrace the idea even a little, that I’m not what I think I am.
So,how to we embrace the idea, “even a little”? I’ll close on a story. Like I said, at the beginning of this, I don’t really like me and I don’t generally understand why others do. So I am a ghost at church. I stay out of the crowd, I take down the stage every week, before we assembled a team, I was pretty much the only one doing it and I go home. It’s what I do, I don’t put a lot of stock in it. Best of all, it allows for controlled interaction, I don’t have to talk to everyone in the building, and I enjoyed seeing myself as non-entity. I thought I just showed up, did stuff and disappeared and nobody sees me.
One minor catch: I’m actually on the stage, everybody sees me, and the people who also work behind the scenes in other capacities, like the people who can only leave when everything is gone, are very well aware of me, and I’ll get to how I know this. They would try to connect with me if I wasn’t moving at a pace that is almost specifically designed to make that difficult. But I’ve been noticing a change where I’m dipping my toe into the miasma in the lobby.
A while back my church (City Reformed) had organized a reformation service in conjunction with Bethany Baptist in Homewood and the Korean Central Church in Shadyside where it took place. So, three churches, only one of which I’m familiar with, and only about 7 people I know. So the service ends, and I offer to help with teardown, they say they’re good, and I walk out the door, but I realize I hate the immediacy of it and for what seems like no rational reason, I start walking back thinking this is a bad idea, but I can’t really pull myself to turn around, maybe I’ll talk to anyone from the teardown team I missed on my beeline out the door..
So I wind up in the crowd which is even tighter packed than I thought it was going to be, and wander. I’ve done this once before, I told a group I’d be at the church picnic, a crowd of complete strangers got there first and after a while, I gunned it. Anyway, the “reception” for lack of a better word is in the basement of the church and there is a line that L-shapes to the door. I’m down here for the same reason I went to Jubilee for the first time. A firm but friendly cajoling, this time by Sol, our wonderful program manager at City. To be clear, I wasn’t really comfortable being down there at all, so I knew that, if I didn’t make a beeline for the door, I’d gravitate toward the 3 or 4 people down here I knew and hope to God they weren’t talking to anyone I didn’t know at the time. Eventually, after taking a plate of carrots, ranch dip and not much else, I walk about 10 paces before wandering right into Chrissie, a member of the Women’s Council, Matt’s wife and one of the most effervescent people you could ever meet. She is talking to a member of Bethany Baptist that she has known for a while and lets me into the conversation as well. We’re talking for a bit, but the conversation slows, and I think that’s my cue to get out. The woman, whose name I do not recall, then asks me how I know Chrissie and this is where Chrissie kind of explodes into this excited diatribe about how long and how often I’ve been doing teardown and these times where they invited me to their house to watch Steeler games, even though the Steelers are third in a four-team race in my world (Texans, Falcons, Steelers, Packers. Not sorry.), and ended this with something to the effect of “we love that he does that and we love him too.” I can’t muster up anything in response. And before anyone thinks “you could’ve just said thanks”, I have a problem with that word. It is just.bloodless. You know, people always answer “How’re you doin’” with ”fine” or “good” or “ok”. Same concept.
So, I just got something very warm, from one of the warmest people I know, and it is completely opposite everything I am and how I see myself, so after I get home and “recover”, here comes the questioning. First point: How do you love someone who isn’t really there? I do teardown, sure, but I disappear. I’ve missed every church picnic except the indoor one I had to teardown, I get breakfast before going to the Easter service (which has a breakfast of its own with the entire congregation, which I can then avoid). I’m not really in a community group so by design, I’m not personally well known. So this doesn’t make sense. Second point, I could’ve taken that a lot better. And all of this confusion and all of this rationalizing is really just a voice saying “ya didn’t deserve that. She’s missing something about you.” And after a while, I’m realizing that I feel expected to do something with this, and the only thing I know to do is to tamp it down, minimize it and finally extinguish it, and that is not helping anything. So, for the time being, I’ve learned to still process these things, but to be able to put up a barrier that just say “I have no idea what to do with this, or how to respond, I’m just thrilled it’s here at all.”
I’m not saying become an extrovert or to find your identity in being liked. I’m saying when someone tells you that they care for you, or when you hear or read that God loves you. It’s actually ok to say nothing, or just say you don’t know how to respond, especially if your only known course of action is a self-despising deflection. When the conversation’s over or when you’re done reading, give yourself space to let what’s been said or read to just sink in. Don’t question, don’t do anything with it, just sit. You don’t have to do anything to simply absorb it. If you’re sitting in darkness and there’s one opening, light will come in, or make its presence known to you on its own (“at the end of the tunnel” as it were). If you or I just ruminate on it, we may be able to see ourselves in that light. We’ll close with the part of Romans 8 I mentioned earlier.
Romans 8:31-37: What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I want to point out, again, that this entire passage, doesn’t talk about why any of this is true. Because “why” doesn’t matter and it is true by itself. Meditate on that, and have a good night.