How can we be sure God loves us?

Alan Stanley

Dr Alan Stanley, Director of Postgraduate Studies

I am reading a book on how to love your children. It points out that even though parents may tell their children regularly that they love them unconditionally this does not necessarily translate into children feeling loved, according to research and the experience of counselors working with children.

As a parent who often tells my kids I love them, this has always bothered me. I want my children to feel loved when I say, “I love you.” How could they feel otherwise? Then I stumbled on the answer.

I was working on my computer and my son Jackson came alongside to talk. I engaged him in conversation but all the while continuing to look straight ahead at the computer. Then it hit me. I mean really it me; like a bolt of lightning straight to the heart. I felt like I had discovered one of life’s most perplexing questions.

You see, from my point of view I was doing what most men are incapable of doing. I was multitasking: working and conversing. But think of Jackson looking at the side of my head. Whether I intended it or not he was hearing: “I love my work more than you.” That’s how children can grow up being told that they are unconditionally loved and yet not believe or feel it.

This got me thinking about God. I know God loves me. But honestly, all too often I feel like I know this truth better intellectually than experientially. That’s a problem for more reasons than I have time to explain here. But here’s one: we can never experience God’s presence, life, and power unless we first grasp his love for us in Christ in an experiential way (Ephesians 3:18-19).[1]

So why is it that God’s love for us often seems to be something we know better in our minds than in our hearts? Is there something to be learned from my experience with Jackson? At first the answer would appear to be an unequivocal no. If my children feel unloved because I have failed them in some way, then it’s my fault. But if we feel like God does not love us, surely God is not to blame.

For he does not simply tell us he loves us, he has demonstrated it: “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). But if God backs up his words with actions then why are we so often like children who in spite of being regularly told that we are loved by God don’t always feel it, perhaps even doubt it at times? Some might say that we simply need to believe that God loves us. But is that enough? After all, I do not just believe that my wife and boys, and close friends, love me; I know they love me.[2] Believing that God loves me must lead to that kind of knowing.

So what is the answer? This was a perennial problem for Israel it seems. God told them, “I have loved you.” To which they responded, “How have you loved us?” (Malachi 1:2). They had interpreted the painful circumstances in their lives as the absence of God’s love. We are prone to do the same. We might not voice it of course. We take it by faith that God loves us after all. But deep in our hearts where only God can see, if we’re honest, we struggle. Mary and Martha also struggled. Their brother Lazarus became deathly ill. “So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord, the one you loveis sick’” (John 11:3). But Jesus delayed going to Lazarus and as a result he died. You can sense the sisters’ struggle when Jesus finally showed up: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 1:21, 32).

There is no question that Jesus loved this family. And yet it is because he loved them that he delays in going to them. I know this sounds absurd but look at how John explains things. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (John 11:5-6). Read it again slowly. The train of thought is clear: “it is in consequence of that love that he delays his departure by two days.”[3] Why would he do that? One commentator expresses the dilemma we are faced with here: “Humans generally interpret any delay in rendering help as cruel because of our perspectives on the avoidance of all pain and because of our general commitment to the immediacy of action.” In other words, if Jesus really loved them he would act now to avoid so they could avoid pain. To delay seems cruel. “But cruelty is hardly what this story is about.”[4] Jesus loves this family.

Do we not struggle like Mary and Martha? “Lord, if you loved me, wouldn’t you deliver me from this pain? Why the delay if you love me? Are you even listening?” But God is not multitasking, looking straight ahead at running the world while we speak to the side of his head wondering if he cares. We have his undivided attention. He is looking into our face as it were. We know this because of what Jesus’ delay meant for him. Jesus tells us in verse 4, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” This may sound like Jesus is unconcerned about suffering as long as God gets glory. That is not the case. Jesus waits two more days because he knows what his waiting will mean. Waiting will give Jesus the opportunity to raise Lazarus. But raising Lazarus will cause such uproar amongst the Jewish leaders that “from that day on they plotted to take his life” (John 11:46-53)—which is what will bring glory to God (e.g., John 12:16, 23).

So here’s the point. We may see our pain as the absence of Jesus’ love for us. Jesus, however, sees it differently. Our pain is a continual reminder to him of just how much he really does love us. He could have avoided pain himself and provided Mary, Martha, Lazarus, us, the world, with a quick fix. But when you know that someone you love has an infection you don’t give him or her an aspirin when you know only antibiotics will do. Jesus saw Mary and Martha’s pain. He sees our pain. But our pain, whatever it is, is symptomatic of a greater pain, namely, the pain that comes with pursuing life in things that are not God. Jesus knows that if he really loves us he must fix that pain because that pursuit will simply leave us thirsty. And so he demonstrates just how much he loves us by deliberately choosing the path of greatest pain for himself. His refusal to offer Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and us a quick fix eventually brings him into a world of pain where he will be the one—not us—to cry out “I am thirsty” (John 19:28).

This solution does not end our pain, at least not for now. But it does show that we can know God’s love; we are not looking into the side of his head while he focuses on the things that he really loves. It’s his people that he loves. And somewhat paradoxically we can be sure of that every time we experience pain. For the presence of our pain in this life serves to remind us that Jesus did not take the easy option and bypass pain for himself in order to provide a quick fix for our pain. He loves us more than that. So much so that he would deliberately put himself on a path of pain so that we might never have to walk that path ourselves.

[1] See e.g., Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 265.

[2] This insight comes from David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 26.

[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 408.

[4] This quote and the quote above are from Gerald L. Borchert, John 1–11 (NAC 25A; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 351.

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