It is easy to understand that God loves us. Not only do we experience His love in real and personal ways, but we also see His love for us plainly revealed and demonstrated in page after page of Scripture. John 3:16 says it all: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
God’s sacrifice of His Son for our sins proves the depth of His love for us (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:9–10). It also proves that God loves every human being who has ever walked on the face of the planet. The apostle Paul took this fact personally. In Galatians 2:20, he wrote concerning the Son of God that, “[He] loved me and gave Himself for me.” We should all take God’s love personally.
Yet, in spite of the fact that God loves everyone, not everyone loves Him back. In reality, some people hate God. Speaking of them, Jesus said:
He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would have no sin; but now they have seen and also hated both Me and My Father. But this happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law, “They hated Me without a cause.” (John 15:23–25)
To those who hated Him, Jesus said:
If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. (John 8:42–44)
Concerning the end of those who hate God, Scripture is not kind:
If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. (1 Cor. 16:22)
But unlike those who hate God, our reaction to God’s love is to love Him back. Just as the Scripture says, “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This verse tells us at least two things. First, it says that it is a matter of fact that we love God. There is no doubt about it in our minds. We certainly do love God, and we are conscious of that fact. But 1 John 4:19 also tells us why we love Him.
We love Him because He first loved us. And while it is true that His love for us caused our love for Him in the first place, it is not as though we wake up every day and consciously decide to respond to His love for us with love for Him. The love that Christians have for God is more like an involuntary response to the outpouring of His love upon us. In fact, Jesus told a story that beautifully illustrates just how our love for God is a response to God’s love for us.
The background for Jesus’ story was a real-life event (Luke 7:36–39). Jesus had accepted an invitation to dine with a Pharisee named Simon. While everyone was sitting for dinner, a woman came into the room looking for Jesus because she had heard He was there. She began weeping. Then she wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them clean with her hair. When she finished, she kissed Jesus’ feet and poured some of the fragrant oil that she had brought with her on them.
I’m sure this woman caused a commotion, but Simon did not say a word. However, he knew she had a terrible reputation in the city, and he was puzzled that Jesus would let a woman like her do those things to Him. While he was pondering that question, Jesus told him this story:
There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more? (Luke 7:41–42)
Jesus told this story and asked Simon the question mainly to address the concerns of Simon’s heart. But along the way, He conveyed some important theological truths about sin and forgiveness. One of them is that no matter how large or small our debt of sin, none of us has any way to repay the debt. Another is that God forgives freely. Another is that everyone forgiven winds up in the same place—debt-free. But as I said, this story is not mainly about our sin and God’s forgiveness. It’s mainly about the gratitude that His forgiveness produces in the hearts of the forgiven.
Simon answered Jesus’ question with a guess that the one who had been forgiven the greater debt probably appreciated it more than the one forgiven less. Jesus affirmed his answer and explained how the woman’s acts of love for Him were directly correlated with His act of love for her:
Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little. (Luke 7:44–47)
This woman’s actions were not like a puppy that crawls to its master with its ears down and its tail tucked when it knows it has done something wrong. She did not do these things out of guilt or fear of punishment. She did them out of love and gratitude. Though her sins were many, she knew she had been freely forgiven. She was grateful for what Jesus had done for her, and her gratitude moved her to action. Jesus’ words let the people in the room know that her love for Him was because of what she had received from Him, and His words to her affirmed that her sins indeed had been forgiven.
This story and others like it sometimes cause me to wonder what it would have been like to have seen Jesus in person and hear Him preach. I imagine that to hear truth from the Creator of the universe must have been wonderful. But at the same time, I wonder if it would have been difficult to accept that a human being standing in my presence was the incarnation of God.
One verse in 2 Corinthians seems to put these questions to rest. It says, “Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer” (2 Cor. 5:16). The word, “we”, in this verse obviously refers to the people who had heard Jesus with their ears and who had seen Him with their eyes. The verse seems to say, that after they had received the Holy Spirit into their hearts, and after they had developed a personal relationship with Jesus spiritually, they no longer related to Jesus based on the memory of His physical presence, but they related to Him through real-time direct personal contact with His Spirit.
This is consistent with what we experience today. Though we have never seen Him physically, we love Him nonetheless. But it is not as though we have never seen Him at all, because we “see” Him spiritually. We sense His presence, we sense His communications, we sense His blessings, and we sense His love. And even though we have never seen Him with our eyes, we love Him “with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
We are certainly not among those who hate Him. We love Him, and we know that we love Him. And when we read in Scripture of the blessings promised to those who love Him, we rightly consider ourselves to be among the blessed:
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. (1 Cor. 2:9–10)
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is, “ ‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment” (Mark 12:30). Now that Jesus lives in us, we love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds, and with all our strength.
We love God more than we love the world and more than we love the things in the world—just as Scripture requires (1 John 2:15). We love God more than we love our houses and more than we love our property—just as Scripture requires (Mark 10:29–31). And though our love for the people around us is greater because the love of God is in us, we love God more than we love our parents, more than we love our spouses, more than we love our children, more than we love our siblings, and more than we love our own lives—just as Scripture requires (Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26).
Some people think that God’s commandments are written to show us how to live our lives, but they are not. They are written to make clear the difference between right and wrong, so that each of us might come to know that we are sinners, that we are guilty before God, and that we need His forgiveness (Rom. 3:19–20). And they say something about us who are saved. They tell us what God put inside us when He came to live in our hearts.
When God came to live in our hearts, He brought all His laws with Him. And when He made His home within us, He wrote those laws indelibly upon our hearts. As a result, the commandment to love Him with all our hearts is not a burdensome commandment that is too hard to bear. It is a natural thing for us to do, and we do it without even thinking.
Jesus said it Himself: “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God” (John 8:42). Loving God in a way that fulfills the greatest commandment is not something we do by being obedient to the Scriptures. Nor is it by disciplining ourselves to do all that God requires.
The kind of love we have for God (the kind that satisfies the requirements of the greatest commandment) cannot be manufactured by man or by human effort. The love we have for God is in us for no other reason except we have been born of God (John 8:42). Our love for God helps define who we are in Christ. Our love for God is built into our spiritual DNA, and it will never change.