Some friends were talking recently with a young man, trying to get clarification about his faith and in their conversations with him he kept coming back to the idea that “God is love.” This sounds good, at least on the surface, but in the same conversations he was also having difficulty articulating a sense of what sin is. That is a problem–after all, why did Christ have to die, if not to atone for our sins?
We like to say that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). This is comforting and we say we want God to love us. We may even think we believe that. I’m not so sure that that is the case deep down though. I think we want God to like us, but not necessarily to love us. So what’s the difference?
We want God to like us like we want our friends to like us. We want them to affirm us, to agree with us, and to show us favor. Those of a certain age–and I’m of that age–might remember Fred Rogers of the children’s show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. One of Mr. Rogers’ favorite sayings was, “I like you just the way you are.” That’s what we want from God: we want Him to like us just the way we are.
That’s not the way God operates. To be sure, God accepts us where we are at. We don’t have to first “get right with God” before coming into His presence. Christ, as we know, ate with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors (and with Pharisees and hypocrites as well). But, that said, God refuses to leave us where we’re at. He loves us too much to leave us in the condition we are in. That’s why sanctification is part of our salvation.
God’s love is a love that doesn’t give up and doesn’t leave. He will drag us, kicking and screaming if need be, into what He intends for us to become, into the fullness and joy of a relationship with Himself. We like our friends because our friends like us. God’s love, however, wants what is the very best for us, even if we spit in His face and want Him to go away. He is up close and personal and not going away.
If you want a picture of this, think about a loved one struggling with an addiction or a horribly bad relationship. True love will not acquiesce in letting the loved one continue in that addiction or that relationship. Why? Because we love them too much to let them destroy themselves through that addiction or that relationship. They are made for better things, and they will only find genuine happiness in those better things, not in the smack or the bottle or the relationship they are clinging tenaciously to. Love is more painful than being liked, and more costly than being liked. That is why I think we prefer being liked to being loved. But being love is also far deeper, far more intimate, and far more genuinely satisfying than being liked.
Sin is not so much shortcomings in a list of rules or even merely an impediment in our relationship with God per se; it is something abhorrent to God because He knows the beauty and glory that we are capable of displaying–He knows because He made us precisely to display such beauty and glory–and sin causes us to whither, to shrivel up into a desiccated, doubled over, pathetic husk. If unaddressed, sin will kill us. That is the ugly truth. Sin must be addressed, must be atoned for and the pursuit of holiness must be part of our life in Christ if we are to be what God intends for us to be.
God loves us too much to leave us alone and to our own devices. Such a love can be both scary and comforting.