Nothing is so fundamental to the Christian journey as knowing and feeling that we are loved. Nothing. This is the basis for the whole of what it means to be a Christian. (Gordon T. Smith)
Paul wrote in Romans 5 that in human experience, self-sacrifice is unusual even when the one for whom the sacrifice is made is especially good (Romans 5:8). He drew a contrast with God’s love—sacrificial love that defines the very nature of God—love that is not determined by the qualities of the one loved. Rather, from a nature that defies human logic and wisdom, God loved us even while we were still sinners and hence enemies of God’s sovereign plan for creation (Romans 5:7). This love is known in a multitude of ways and is confirmed by the gift of the Holy Spirit who fills the believer’s heart with the love of God (Romans 5:5). The ultimate confirmation of God’s love came through the horrific sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Through many acts, the Creator God reaches out to his creation, forming a basis for a profound inner assurance of the love of God. John R. W. Stott wrote:
The unique majesty of God’s love lies in the combination of three factors, namely that when Christ died for us, God (a) was giving himself, (b) even to the horrors of a sin-bearing death on the cross, and (c) doing so for his undeserving enemies. (John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God ’s Good News for the World [Leicester: InterVarsity, 1994), 145.])
This love of God is the environment in which the follower of Jesus lives and breathes. It follows, then, that spiritual formation must be pursued within this context and an accepting and grateful awareness of the grand reality that accompanies an assurance of the love of God.
Many have written to remind the student of spiritual formation that this quest for supreme human fulfillment is not about winning or earning the love of God. However, if the assurance of the love of God is not securely established as the setting in which spiritual formation is pursued, then the heart of the journey will almost certainly become distorted and misguided. Spiritual formation is a demanding, lifelong journey that can lead to discouragement if our heart is not sustained and encouraged by the assurance of God’s unfathomable love acting as a safety net. But with this assurance—this promise of victory already won firmly in place—spiritual formation becomes an addition to something already wonderful, our eternal life with God.
Oswald Chambers wrote, “My assurance is to be built upon God’s assurance to me. God says, ‘I will never leave you,’ so that then I may boldly say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear.’” (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest: An Updated Edition in Today’s English, ed. James Reimann [Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House, 1992], June 5.) The assurance of God’s love is an underlying necessity in the life and spiritual formation of a disciple of Jesus:
Nothing is so fundamental to the Christian journey as knowing and feeling that we are loved. Nothing. This is the basis for the whole of what it means to be a Christian. There is no other foundation on which we can build. It is from the experience of God’s love that we know the grace of God and live out every other dimension of our Christian faith. (Gordon T. Smith, The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer, and the Witness of the Spirit [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003], 74.)
By God’s grace through persevering faith in Jesus, our status as a child of God is secure. Spiritual formation engaged with our focus fixed on the love of God helps us realize the present marvelous reality that is offered to us:
Imagine our amazement, our utter shock, when we finally understood that Jesus actually loves us and never leaves us! That our sin does not stand between Jesus and us. That Jesus, who is the centerpiece of this realm of grace, actually walks around our sin, stands with His arm around us, with our sin in front of us, and gives us His perspective on our sin. He never leaves. Well, that changes everything! (Bill Thrall and Bruce McNicol, “Communities of Grace,” The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2010), 66.)
The histories of spiritual formation are filled with those who struggled and failed and felt brutalized by their failure. Early in his ministry, Wesley sought to record in his diary his spiritual life in minute detail, recording each resolution kept or broken, the level of his commitment to devotion, and other activities associated with his effort to spend every minute of his life in the service of God. This proved to be a terribly defeating method of discipline. It was not until Wesley’s Aldersgate experience that he came to feel his heart “strangely warmed,” an experience that brought his devotion within the sphere of the assurance of God’s love. Prior to that, Wesley described himself as one who “fell and rose and fell again.” After Aldersgate, while Wesley continued to develop in his understanding of the full meaning of salvation through faith, his struggles were more and more within the assurance of the love of God, the assurance that affords the believer the basis upon which to pursue Christlikeness with unfailing confidence and hope.
The nature of God’s love means that nothing can be done to make God love a person more. Let’s personalize that. There is absolutely nothing you can do to make God love you more. He loved people (you) fully even when they were his enemies. Now by his grace he loves you as his friend. “We cannot earn this love, manipulate things to make God love us more or in any way make ourselves more loveable. Nothing can make this love increase; we are already loved to the full.” (Smith, The Voice of Jesus, 76.) God does not love us for who we are, for what we do, or for what we accomplish. We are, quite simply, loved.
This is so contrary to our human nature that it’s hard to accept. It goes against the earning-favor pattern that we know in human relationships. It goes against the performance-based acceptance that is so deeply embedded in our culture. But it is an extremely important truth. Thomas à Kempis added breadth to this description of love when he reminded us that God loves us as much in our failings as he does in our successes. Try to get your head around that! That’s not a rhetorical suggestion. Really, try! Does that take some pressure off? This is a truth of invaluable worth, yet one that is so hard for us to apply in the day-to-day routine of life. But to the extent life is lived with this assurance, it is a freeing truth that allows a follower of Jesus to know the joy and peace of God.
Are you interested in learning more about this topic? David Long wrote a book, The Quest for Holiness: From Shallow Belief to Mature Believer. It’s a work that seeks to help individuals, small groups, and entire churches understand humanity’s fallen nature and surrender more and more to the transforming work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Get your copy from our store now.