What Does God’s Love Look Like?
What does God’s love look like? We know that the love of Christ is always present and active. We cannot make God love us more. Nor can we make Him love us less. Yet, we can become more conscious of the love of Christ, and the more we see it, the more our lives are filled with God. This brings to light an important principle. Having a life filled with God’s glory is far more about seeing than doing or accomplishing. This is why Paul does not exhort the Ephesian church to do more, so they could have more of God. He merely prays that we would see the glorious love in which we dwell.
We can never hope to take in the entirety of this magnificent vision in one article. What I am hoping for is a glimpse. I am going to make a few observations about the love of Christ that might challenge us to look at God’s love in new ways that we might see it more clearly.
God’s Love is a Conqueror
Conquering and loving might seem like two contradictory ideas. Yet, God’s love is something that overwhelms us. It is both a servant and a ruler at the same time. Consider the story of Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. If we made a list of the worst sinners in the country, who would be at the top of our list? Without question, the tax collector would be at the top of everyone’s list in first century Palestine. Chief tax collectors did not fill out an application for their job; they paid for it. The Romans gave the position to the highest bidder. Tax collectors bought the right to cheat their own people.
Taxes hit the common man the hardest. People had to pay Rome but also King Herod. They paid tributes and direct taxes on land and duties, and extra taxes on everyday items such as salt. There were no tax breaks for the poor or deductions for children. In fact, there was a head tax, which meant the bigger the family, the higher the taxes. In addition, Jews had to give tithes to build Herod’s temple and support the priesthood.
Some estimate that the total tax burden on the average family was 30 percent or more of the household’s total income. This might not sound that bad when you add up all our modern taxes; most of us pay at least that. However, Palestine in Jesus’s time was an agrarian society, and most citizens had only a fraction of the wealth we do today. Even without an excessive tax burden, a “good year” meant the average family could keep a roof over its head and all its stomachs full. On a bad year, the family had to sacrifice, maybe even go hungry part of the time. Add a 30 percent tax burden to a family that barely has the essentials already, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Paying taxes was a matter of life and death. The Romans would sometimes destroy whole villages for being late with payments. The tax collectors themselves were little more than thugs. Rome gave them the power to do what was necessary to get Rome’s money, including torturing not only men but also women and children.
The very rich offered “relief” for those who were behind on their payments, paying a debtor’s taxes if he agreed to sign over the rights to his land and become an indentured servant. However, the land meant everything to the Jews. It was God’s gift, a part of the Jewish identity, and its loss meant the debtor had failed both his family and his God.
The tax collectors were cogs a machine that was squeezing the life out of the Jewish people, and it is no wonder everyone hated them. For some strange reason, we do not think it is as bad to rob a rich man as it is to rob a poor man. It is one thing to cheat a fellow who will not miss a little of his money, but to take a man’s last morsel of food? That is low. And that is exactly what the tax collectors did. They were growing rich off the misery of the poor.
Perhaps Zacchaeus heard about the Rabbi Jesus, who actually befriended tax collectors. How could this be? Righteous Jews did not associate with sinners. Torah keepers were supposed to cast off evil men and isolate them from the faithful. Because people like Zacchaeus were an abomination to God, they were not allowed to worship in the Temple; they were unworthy of God’s presence. But if Jesus was a rabbi like no other who embraced the wicked, this was something Zacchaeus had to see. He was short, so he climbed up in a tree to get the best possible view of the Lord.
Many onlookers probably wondered why Zacchaeus wanted to get close to Jesus: “What is this evil man doing up in that tree? Doesn’t he know the Messiah will give sinners like him what they deserve?” Imagine the little tax collector’s surprise when Jesus stopped, looked up, and called him by name. “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house!”
Zacchaeus deserved shame, but Jesus honored him. The Lord did not wait for this evil man to become worthy of God’s presence; He gave God’s presence as a gift. He simply announced that He was coming to stay with a man whose life was a mess.
No doubt, prior to this day, people threatened Zacchaeus countless times with the wrath of God. In the past, all the condemnation in the world could not penetrate this chief tax collector’s seared conscience. Yet this hardened sinner had no defense against love. When Jesus gave honor instead of shame, it broke Zacchaeus’ heart. Love conquered him, and he became love’s willing slave.
God’s Law in the Old Testament required a man who cheated another to pay back what he stole plus 20 percent. Tax collectors of the day commonly overcharged people and kept the difference for themselves. After Jesus blessed him, Zacchaeus proclaimed that he would pay back four times what he had stolen. And not only that, he would give half of all he had to the poor. Such is the power of love. Fear might compel us to obey the letter of the law but love leads us to willing self-sacrifice.
Jesus’s ministry was filled with extraordinary acts of love, but the greatest of all came at Calvary. We also know the cross as God’s triumph. Yet, people alive in Jesus’s day would have looked at it very differently. No one expected a crucified Messiah. Overwhelmingly, they were looking for a Messiah who would conquer not with love but through violence.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem a week before His death, the people spread palm branches on the ground and cheered His arrival. This might be an indicator of the kind of King they wanted. About 160 years earlier a similar scenario played out in Jewish history. A man named Judas Maccabeus led a revolt against the Seleucid Empire against impossible odds. He was known as the Hammer of God, and used cunning and violence to save the Jewish religion from a pagan king. When the victorious rebel entered Jerusalem, the people spread palm branches on the ground and shouted his praises, just as they did for Jesus. No doubt many were waiting for Jesus to become the next Hammer of God, and this time the victim would be the Romans.
You could imagine the people’s dread when their deliverer king ended up a victim Himself, dying a humiliating death on a Roman cross. Many would struggle to call this God’s power. When we think of God’s ability, we think of Him exalting Himself above all others. We all love those moments in the scriptures when the Lord put the evildoers in their place. Yet, if God is infinitely powerful, He not only has the power to exalt Himself, He also has the power to lower Himself to become the lowest of the low. Astonishingly, it is this power that saved us all. Jesus conquered His enemies by sacrificing for them.
The Lord calls us to walk in His steps. We too are to overcome with love. We see our marching orders in the Sermon on the Mount. We are told to love our enemies, an idea very foreign in that day and still in ours. Jesus said that we are to bless those who curse us and do good to those who hate us. Such ideas are otherworldly to us, and there can be no doubt they are divine.
In Jesus’s discourse He told His followers that if a Roman soldier forced them to carry his pack one mile, they were to carry it two. A Roman soldier could conscript anybody he wanted to carry his pack for a mile. Imagine you were a soldier of Rome and you got one of the worst assignments in the empire…Palestine. Your people had conquered the Jews, but because of their strange religion, they still thought they were better than you. In fact, their favorite name for the gentiles was “dogs.” Yet, you had the power to humiliate anyone of them at any time. They had to carry your pack without complaint.
One day you point to one and shout “You! Carry my pack for me!” Willingly your enemy picks up your heavy pack and begins to carry it. After a mile you expect him to toss it back to you and walk off cursing. To your surprise he smiles and says, “Let’s go another mile!” You might not drop your sword, but you would be disarmed. You might never look at these strange Jewish people the same. Such is the power of love and such is the way God calls us to walk in this world. We are to be otherworldly in the way we love.
God loves us in loss
Do you think God loved Paul? If you look at all the apostle suffered, you might think not. He was not only beaten and whipped multiple times, but three times he was shipwrecked. Couldn’t have God at least protected him as he traveled?
We might think similar things about our own lives. When we suffer loss or when our lives don’t turn out the way we want, we might think God does not love us. At times it may seem God gives us the opposite of what we think He has promised us. At such times we may wonder if God’s love is real. We certainly can’t see it.
However, if we can’t see God’s love, we may be looking in the wrong place. Sometimes we don’t see God’s love, because we don’t fully understand it. Consequently, we only acknowledge God’s kindness when it looks like we think it should.
What does God want to give you more than anything? When we hear that question, we might be tempted to look at the creation. We set our hearts on finite things, and we expect God to give them to us. If He doesn’t, we can become disappointed with God.
Instead, we should look at the Creator, Himself to understand God’s gift. What God wants to give us more than anything is Himself, because that is what love does. It gives itself away. God did not create us for the finite alone. He wanted us to know the infinite, the divine. He wanted a beloved. That is who we are, the recipients of the greatest gift ever given, and that gift defines us and makes our lives full.
However, God’s great gift often comes through suffering. At times we have to reach the end of ourselves to reach the beginning of God. We must reach the end of our own righteousness before we can live in the righteousness of Christ, and that end does not come easily. Sometimes God has to take away the finite, so He can give us the infinite. We suffer what the world calls a hard life that we might know Christ as our life.
In the scriptures those who knew God best often suffered the most. Perhaps you are one who seems left out of what the world calls important. Maybe God has taken you out of the limelight and made you a virtual nobody, and loneliness appears to be your lot. Maybe you have suffered in ways that others haven’t, or perhaps it seems God withholds things from you that He freely gives others. The world might call you forsaken, but God calls you beloved. Your portion is God and your blessing is infinite. God has called you to know Him. You can fight that calling, or you can surrender to it, and in doing so find a joy that few people find.
When we begin to see our loving God’s goal for our lives, we begin to look beyond the finite to the infinite. When our gaze is fixed there, we begin to see God’s love not just in gain but also in loss. This is part of the revelation of the love of Christ.
God’s Love is Unthinkable
The wonder of this passage is far more than meets the eye. In that day lepers were considered unclean, and being unclean was not just a sanitary issue, it was a spiritual matter. Everyone knew God hated unclean things. If you were a leper, many people believed you were that way either because of your sin or your parent’s sin. You were getting what you deserved, and the horror of your outward appearance was a reflection of what God thought of you.
The Torah said you weren’t supposed to touch unclean things, but what was Jesus’s favorite way of healing a leper? He touched them, seemingly violating God’s command! Does that disturb you? It disturbed many in Jesus’s day. In fact, many of the things Jesus did, people considered outrageous. He dined with sinful and unclean tax collectors. He blessed many people that everyone hated including the gentiles.
We must look again at the cross to see the depths of God’s outrageous love. Crucifixion was an excruciatingly painful death, but writers in the first century spoke far more of its shame than its pain. The Romans wanted to hurt you, but they also wanted to humiliate you. They stripped you bare; the soldiers mocked you, and then as you were dying, your enemies heaped shame upon you.
Jesus was God in the flesh, so in a sense, at Calvary God allowed human beings to humiliate Him. Isn’t God the one who is supposed to lower the proud? Yet, here at this forsaken place, God allowed the proud to lower Him, a thought that many consider inconceivable. Even today when many Muslims tell the story of the cross, they tell it differently than Christians. In their account, through some divine trickery, Judas was crucified while Jesus escaped to heaven. To them, God going through the humiliation of the cross is unthinkable.
When God’s love appears outrageous, it merely means that it is bigger than ours. If we reach a time when God’s love offends us, it is an invitation to receive a greater vision of the width, length, height, and depth of the love of Christ. On that day, we can either walk away or we can join an ever expanding celebration of God’s love.
Christ’s love compels worship. Love is the only ruler to which we willingly bow. Fear might force us to obey a command, but it can never beget love. Only love can do that. When we behold the love of Christ, we willingly give ourselves to the One who gave Himself for us, and when the two are given to one another in love, the two become one. Such is the goal and the aim of the infinite love of Christ.
Let us therefore pray with Paul that God would open our eyes to the width and length and height and depth of Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge, that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.