God loves you. Absolutely, and indescribably, you are adored beyond measure, no matter what you do, no matter what choices you make, and, importantly, no matter what you believe in.
So what does it mean when someone tells you that you can never earn God’s love? Has this statement ever seemed contrary to God’s nature? Let’s take a look at what it means.
We live in a very performance-oriented culture. We’re trained, from the very beginning, to believe in the American Dream, that hard work gets us what we want. We go through school, studying late into the night so that we can earn top marks. We put in extra hours at work for the off chance that we might get a bigger raise. So it’s natural to expect that effort equals reward.
For many, this attitude makes its way into the theological realm, as well. Perhaps you’ve thought something like this at one time or another.
“If I can just convert someone to Christianity, God will finally love me.”
“All I need to do is stop drinking, and God will approve of my existence.”
“God doesn’t love me because I don’t go to church enough.”
This type of thinking produces not only a sense of unhappiness, but invalidates our very existence—after all, if the very creator of the universe doesn’t care, then who will?
But God doesn’t work this way. His love isn’t a college exam or a team project at the office. The amount of effort put in doesn’t affect what you get. You can never do enough good deeds, never convert enough people, never go to church enough, to earn God’s love. It’s wholly out of your power.
How do we know this?
Because Paul, in Romans 3:20, when addressing the issue of justification, declares that “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” God’s law lets us know where the boundaries are, but we can’t earn God’s love by staying within those boundaries—they’re there to keep us safe from our fallen nature, to keep us from descending into self-destruction. They are not in place to allow us to earn anything.
How, then, can we receive the love of God? Look to the classic verse in John 3:16, and specifically to “For God so loved the world”. God loved and loves the world—He loves everyone. He loved you before you were born. He loved you when you were taking your first steps, when you read your first book. He even loved you when you committed your first sin, and even when you never stopped. In Mark 10:21, it was written that Jesus, upon meeting an unrepentant sinner, “felt a love for him”. God loves sinners. God loves saints. All are his children. We can’t do anything to earn it—God’s love is a gift. We had it from the start.
So how deep is God’s love for us, really? In Ephesians 2:8, Paul gives us a clue, writing that, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” This verse simultaneously illustrates humankind’s deepest need, and God’s greatest gift. He saves us, not because of anything we do, but because of His great love for us, extending His Grace to all mankind, forgiving us of our transgressions against Him. When we entrust ourselves to God through faith, we take hold of that Grace. The very fact that God’s Grace is available to all mankind, no matter our past, shows the enormity of God’s love for us. There is simply nothing like it.
Likewise, our love for others should strive to be just as blind to transgressions. While it may seem impossible to love every individual we encounter, it is commanded of us by Christ—loving our enemies, in fact, is one of Jesus’s most difficult edicts. The vertical love God has for us should be translated into horizontal love for our neighbors.
Remember that, in terms of goodness and deservedness, the space between you and your enemy is much, much less than the space between you and God. If God can love us, then we can love one another.
It’s admittedly difficult to love our enemies. It’s one thing to strive to love and forgive our neighbor when she turns her stereo up in the middle of the night, but what about when we see news of mass shootings and terrorist attacks? Are we to love those people, as well? The truth is that yes, we are. But what, on the human side, does that love look like?
Well, it looks a lot like God’s. It looks like forgiveness.
This isn’t the forgiveness that forgets all wrongs and lowers guards and excuses. This is the kind of forgiveness that happens in the heart, a forgiveness that means that we recognize that these people who we hate so much are human beings.
Forgiveness means that we strive stop the cycle of violence, both emotional and physical, by refusing to harbor burning hatred and rage, and by not dehumanizing. This doesn’t mean we’re not to defend ourselves and strive for proper, legal punishments for those who break laws. The Bible makes it quite clear that self-defense is permissible.
Forgiveness means not striving for the absolute harshest punishment for those who wrong you. It means not seeking to destroy them utterly, not humiliating them, not escalating the situation, and not enjoying their pain. Forgiveness means justice in the absence of hatred. Remember that our fight is not against flesh and blood—direct your rage elsewhere.
Pray for your enemies, and, perhaps more importantly, pray for yourself, that God would bless you with the ability to forgive others as He has forgiven you, and to love others. Remember the gift God gives you. You can never earn His love and, likewise, no one can truly earn yours; give it away for free. Remember that, as a Christian, you are God’s ambassador—his face on this world. Others will know Him through you. Make sure they see His greatest gift.