The Church “God Loved Us” (Sept – Oct 1996)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mark Love
September – October, 1996

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:9-12).

Late in 1994 my wife Nancy and I found ourselves in the land of hopelessness. Her every breath carried with it the struggle of her life, and I know she sometimes wondered if it would be better for the breathing just to stop. The long, persistent betrayal of her body,1 the aloof, patronizing judgments of her medical community, the painful history of family loss, and the struggle for her own life’s identity has conspired to make living an overwhelming enterprise. Though I loved her moment to moment, and spent hours at her side, my love seemed almost superfluous in the face of her struggle. She needed more than I could provide, her burden too great for me to bear. We had outrun our resources for life. We needed a power for life beyond what we possessed.

For a few months we lived in a half-death, a time during which Nancy was never left alone. I worked at home as much as I could, but I couldn’t always be there. I had responsibilities. I needed breaks. Sometimes I needed to be anywhere but there. So, Debbie would come and stay with Nancy on Wednesday evenings. She folded our laundry and did the dishes. Carolyn came and stayed with Nancy on Sunday mornings. Together they created a book of hope, pages filled with drawings, poems, and images of life. Linda and June made themselves useless for us, simply coming and being in our midst. (Sometimes useful people, like Job’s friends, just make things worse.) Dan, our elder, came and prayed. Shelley brought flowers and a prayer of God’s armor and prayed fervently with Nancy. One teenager, Marlaina, noticed my heavy heart and without our knowing, organized a “hope basket,” a little basket full of trinkets, gift certificates, and expressions of love. Wendy and Kay wrote notes from heaven.

The reality of our life today is that while Nancy has not been cured (her illness persists) she has been delivered—delivered from the darkness, hopelessness, and God forsakeness of her life. This deliverance did not come because we read stories of God’s compassion. Our deliverance did not come with some new theological insight or clarified understanding. Our deliverance came in the caring hands, loving arms, and tender words of our church community. Our salvation came because we experienced the love of God in a compassionate church.

Frankly, we found that when life is in the pit of despair it is of little comfort to know that our church has proper doctrine, or even to know heaven is our ultimate home. Our hope had to be measured by touch, by compassion, and by sensitive embrace. We live in a world that longs for such touch. The story of our struggle has revealed the stories of countless others in our church community lost in the abyss of hopelessness. Who could count the number of such persons in our neighborhoods and communities? The church can be many things, but if it is not the compassionate presence of God in the lives of hurting people it is nothing.

WE’VE TRIED IT; IT DOESN’T WORK.

If only all stories out so well. Nancy strikes a fairly sympathetic figure. She is a victim of a disease beyond her control. She is a prominent church member. She is well liked by all who know her. She elicits our sympathy.

Many, however, who come to us for help are far less sympathetic figures. Day by day people walk into our churches,
who are victims of their own circumstances
who are not looking for solutions but fixes
who have learned all the lines, know the angles, and
are simply playing the game.

All too often in our giving, providing, and caring are met with
indifference
ingratitude
and intransigence
Few stories turn out as well as Nancy’s.

In fact, though we might only whisper it, who could blame us for saying, “We’ve tried compassion and it just doesn’t work.” We’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. We’ve tried it and found that it costs too much and pays too little. We’ve tried compassion and found it to be an extravagant waste and a diversion from other more worthy efforts. We’ve given, given, and given, only to be taken. We’ve hoped, and hoped more, only to be crushed.

It’s true, isn’t it? Don’t we know it? The most cynical, burned out, used up, dry husk of a person in the church is the benevolence deacon. We’ve tried compassion and found our churches exhausted, spent, cynical, and protective. Maybe it’s time we put this compassion thing under the microscope and reexamined it. Maybe we need to find a tougher compassion, a stronger compassion than what we have practiced. Perhaps a little means testing. We need a compassion that works. A compassion from God.

BY THIS WE KNOW LOVE …

By this we know love, not that we loved God….”

We sing on Sunday mornings, “I love you Lord, and I lift my voice to worship you, O my soul rejoice!” My three-year-old friend, Sage, asks if she’ll get to see God in heaven. “Yes, Sage.” “I’m gonna give him a great big hug,” she says. April, a college student in my life group, exclaims, “It is soooo easy to love God.” She’s right, isn’t she? Who wouldn’t love the “big guy?” The creator of the universe. The giver of all good things.

Yet, according to our text, in none of these expressions do we know love.

“By this we know love, not that we loved God… but in that he loved us and gave his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sin.”

Paul says it this way in Romans 5: “One will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

In this we know love – day after day God found people
who were victims of their own choices
who were not looking for solutions, but fixes
who had learned all the lines, sung all the right
songs, played all the right games
sinners
and he loved them and gave himself up for them.

Day after day God found in us
indifference
ingratitude
and intransigence
and he gave himself up for us.

In this we know love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

The day my son was born, I held that matted, gooey bundle of postpartum wonder and exclaimed, “Ah, this is the love of God.” The day, not long ago, that I looked at my wife and saw her as if for the first time and yet with complete familiarity, I thought, “No, in this I see the love of God.”

These are certainly powerful expressions of love. The love of child, spouse, and parent allow us to speak of God and his love. But they are love from our vantage point. As such, they are approximations, and distant analogies. In them we see as through a glass darkly, but we do not see love at its radiating core.

The love of God is not a love that is natural to us. We do not find it within our own resources. Our text says it is a love that “was revealed among us in this way.” Revealed to us. God’s love was something hidden or covered over from our knowing and understanding, now unveiled from heaven, manifest completely in the cross of Jesus. At the cross we behold the surprising, extravagant, and scandalizing love of God.

Brothers and sisters, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love one another.

THE CHURCH “WE LOVE GOD”

Is it possible to build, maintain, and grow a church that takes as its creed the phrase, “We Love God?” Yes. In fact, we do it well. It comes naturally to us. The church “We Love God” has dynamic, celebrative, triumphant worship. “We Love God!” The church “We Love God” knows how to potluck. Such churches are growing, vibrant, and dynamic. We see them all the time. In love, fraternal. In stewardship, wise and prudent, professional and efficient. It is possible to maintain, grow, and sustain the church “We Love God.”

In fact, if we ever visited the church “God Loved Us’ and read the requirements for membership we might not return. The visitors’ brochure might read:

“If someone asks for your coat, give them the shirt off your back as well.

“If anyone forces you to go one mile—go the second as well.

“Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you. If you love those who love you what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.”

This is an extravagant, exposed way of being the church. Who could sustain such a life? Who would choose such a way to live in the world? “Why, it would never work,” we protest, “what with people always having their hooks in you. Just stencil the word ‘Welcome’ on our heads. We are the world’s doormat.” Paul said it like this, “We are being killed all day long. We are like sheep being led to the slaughter” (Romans 8:36).

And yet, we are called to live in this way. Out text declares that “God’s love was revealed among us in this way… that we might live in it.” We are called to live a way in the world which we cannot sustain. Though beyond our ability to conceive, this might be the whole idea of being the church. When we decide to live in a way we cannot sustain we become the church. The church “God Loves Us” is not a church sustained in our own power, realized in our own love. God’s desire is to be present in the world in a way not naturally known to us.

Who can sustain us in such a way in the world? God can. Paul reminds us that the extravagant, energizing, core love of God “has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). For Paul it is the love of Christ which now controls us. This produces a scandalous stance for life. “While we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus might be manifest in our mortal bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10-11; 5:14). Driven by the Spirit of God we are “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37) in this exposed and extravagant way in the world. Dependent only on the mercy of God, the church becomes the sign of his compassionate presence.

A SIGN OF HOPE

The church is called to be the sign of God’s compassionate presence in the world in an extravagant way. We are not called to love only the sympathetic. We love not because it produces certain results. We love because God loved us. We live as Christians in the revealed love of God sustained by his Spirit. In the decision to be the church “God Loved Us” we function as a sign of hope for a struggling world.

Frankly, the world has had plenty of experience with the church “We Love God” and has found it wanting. While the church “We Love God” claims God as the object of its devotion, the world is shrewd enough to know that “we” are the subject of this church. The compassion of such a church tends to be condescending and paternalistic. Its service is often read by the world, “WE love God, and you don’t.” This love divides and defeats. However, compassion under the banner “God loved us” is inclusive and inviting. It provides real hope as we stand in solidarity with the world in the experience of God’s mercy. More to the point, the church that lives in the reality “God loved us” experiences a depth of God’s presence that gives its life a ring of authenticity and substance. People need such a compassionate church.

Nancy and I found deliverance in a compassionate church. We found a resource for life that went beyond the love of family or husband. We found in their compassionate touch a Spirit-inspired love born of the decision to be a church “God Loved Us.” We were not on-the-job training for them. They had decided years before to love a member dying of AIDS. They had decided many times to serve people who were inconvenient to love. Their love followed us into the pit of despair and together we found his love made complete in us.

“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

 


1 Nancy suffers from a syndrome called fibromyalgia, a condition thought to be related to rheumatoid arthritis. Though not life threatening, fibromyalgia is chronic and debilitating. For us, however, the eight-year pilgrimage in search of a diagnosis was as difficult as the disease itself.Wineskins Magazine

Mark Love

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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