If you are a non-believer, or sceptic, disenchanted or distrustful; if you have been mistreated or victimized, cheated, or betrayed; fill in the blanks or give your own negative description; then you will find it hard to believe that God is Love and everything good flows from this love. Love can and will conquer, defeat, redeem, restore, complete all that has been broken, lost, wounded, destroyed, or killed!
In one way or another you have asked the age-old question, if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, and all loving, then why is their evil in the world? Why does it happen to the least, the lost, the weak, the weary, and why does it happen to me?
For me the beginning of an answer comes from the nature of love itself. If one is to love and be loved there must be free will. If there is no choice involved in affection it is simply not love. Ergo, therefore, watch out here it comes, people, groups, nations and yes even churches, denominations, and worldwide faith communities can choose not to love! We can fail to love out of ignorance, projection, and just plain choose what is evil instead of what is good!
However, in small and large ways people do choose to love. Even if divorce rates are high couples continue to strive to love in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, in poverty and wealth. Some parents sacrifice, scrimp, and save so their children can thrive and succeed. Some churches do choose to love their neighbors and care for the lame, the lonely, and the lost.
The next part of the answer is that many things in life are neither good nor bad in themselves. The destruction that flows forth is not necessarily an “Act of God”. The Bible tells us Jesus said, “God made the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good and the bad alike.”
When it comes to natural “disasters” there may be evil or bad choices that may cause disproportionate trouble upon the least, the lowly, the poor and the disenfranchised. It may also fall upon the rich and the proud, who try to mitigate it with better insurance. In my city there are million-dollar homes on the river side of the levee! The foolish man builds his house upon sand. In some cities the poor live below sea level. Hurricanes and floods are no respecter of persons.
By contrast such situations in life are equal opportunities for good and bad. Those with loving hearts step in to help. Those filled with greed and desire for personal gain seek to vandalize, cheat the system, or con and gouge the suffering.
In all things God is love and calls us to be instruments of his love to others.
It is admittedly a difficult step. However, St. Paul urges us to believe “All things work together for good for those who trust in The Lord.” This is not just a late New Testament idea. We find it also in the very first book of the Bible. It is in the story of Joseph told in the book of Genesis. Joseph falls out with his brothers and is sold into slavery. Though he succeeds at many things, his situation seems to go from bad to worse until by a turn of events he becomes second only to Pharaoh in the government of Egypt. When he has an opportunity to punish his brothers for their treachery he says instead, “You intended to harm me, but God meant it for good.”
Therefore, when evil or bad things happen to us it is not helpful to ask why? There are only two answers, and neither is particularly helpful. They are “because” and “why not?” The better question is “How then do I now live in love?”
So back to the beginning. God is love and he created a good world. This is the message in the beginning of the Bible. It is not so important to believe God created the world in 6 days. Rather it is important to believe He created it good! As you read Genesis chapter one, notice that at the end of each day of creation it says, “and it was good.”
Now fast forward to the well-known verse, John 3:16. ” God so loved the world….” For now, don’t think about the rest of the verse. Just concentrate on the beginning. It is all about God’s love. “This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us…” I John 4:10. It’s the bumper sticker, “God doesn’t make junk!” Yet we find it so hard to believe.
In the Old Testament and for many people today the quest seems to be how to gain God’s favor and blessings. There were sacrifices to atone for sin. There were tribute offerings we might consider as paying taxes to God. There were communal offerings so that God would share a meal and come close to the believer. There were offerings to plead for help as though one might bargain for God’s assistance.
Regardless of church teaching, people today have similar ideas. People think God is most interested in punishing sin. The roof would fall in if I came to church. We think we can bargain with God. I’ll do this God, if you’ll do that. Let me be sick and heal my child. So, it goes. Faithful people miss the whole point of God’s love.
The most difficult of Jesus’ teaching concerns the nature and character of God. God, he tells us is a loving father. That is like an Abba, which would better be translated as Daddy. Can you pray, “Our Daddy who art in Heaven…”? He also tells us that good fathers know how to do good things for their children and then asks (or tells), “How much more does your heavenly Daddy love you!” Yes, God loves us. He is more eager to be in relationship with us than we are with Him. Jesus told several parables about the lost; the lost coin, sheep, and the lost son. The message for us is this: when we feel distant from God, He is looking for us!
Okay, so you find this hard to believe. The Bible covers this too. Consider the story of Job. He was a righteous man who had done nothing wrong. When a multitude of misfortune comes to him his “friends” are sure that he must have sinned in some way. They urge him to give in, to confess, to seek Gods mercy. Instead Job takes on the Almighty and demands justice. I will admit that god doesn’t seem all that loving when he reveals himself to Job. Yet, the outcome is that Job’s fortunes are restored to him and more. There is a Broadway Show called “Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God.” To me this means God can handle our negative feelings. Like an earthly Daddy He is not harmed or angry with the temper tantrums of His children. Like a loving Daddy He will let us now who is the parent yet pour out His blessings upon us. When the Bible tells us to “fear The Lord” it is more a matter of respect for His power than an anxiety that God is out to get you.
When we observe Jesus in his relationship with some people it appears he thinks it important for people to be strong and determined. He challenges the woman at the well. He confronts the foreign woman who has faith in just a crumb of his blessing. He admires the Roman Centurion who has respect for the power of his Kingdom. He responds positively to friends who tear up a roof and a prostitute who washes his feet with her tears. He recognizes the faith of a despised collaborator who climbs a tree and a leper who stops to give thanks. He appreciates the hutzpah of a woman who pushes through a crowd and another who pours oil on his head. The love of God is unconditional, yet He looks to us to approach with a strong confidence (faith) in His Love.
What then does God want of us? Jesus puts it this way. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you neighbor as yourself.”
These are called The Great Commandments. However, remember where we began, talking about love. If love is truly to be love it cannot be commanded. It must be freely given. In another place Jesus says, “Freely you have received, freely give.” We read this also in I John 4:11 “Dear friends, since God loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Although the characters never go to church or even mention God, the movie Pay It Forward, presents the Gospel in a most convincing way. Because we have first been loved we can help others. Rather than just thank those who have helped us we are called to pass the help along to others in need. Jesus goes as far as to say that when we help the least among us it as if we have helped Jesus himself!
So, what about worship? What about prayer?
We don’t worship to get anything from God. We worship because He is “Worthy” of our praise, adoration, and thanksgiving. We worship because of what God has already done and because we have confidence in His providence to aid what is best for us now and in the future. We hold fast to his promise to Isaiah. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Isaiah 29:11.
Many people think that prayer is mostly about getting God to do something for us or for someone we love or to help with some situation that concerns us. There is a scene the movie Shadowlands about C.S. Lewis. His wife is sick with cancer. One of his colleagues chides him asking ” do you hope to change God’s mind with all that prayer?” Lewis replies, “No, I expect him to change me!” Prayer is first a two-way communication between us and God. It goes both ways. It is about a relationship. Like any relationship, it has its ups and down; it has its seasons. God changes our minds and if we read Job, we know we might indeed sometimes change his.
However, when it comes to prayers of intercession and petition where the intent is to get a favorable outcome for a concern; (healing for a loved one, a new job, justice for a people, etc.) then prayer is a cooperative work between us and God. Our prayers make a difference in the outcome, not because we changed God’s mind, but rather because in some mysterious way, God uses the power of our prayer to effect the change to achieve the desired results. Paul goes as far as to suggest we are “co-creators!” Jesus says in the Gospel of John that believers will do even greater things, than he has done. All this is very amazing!
Evangelism is the topic that flows next. Again, many people think that we must do Evangelism out of duty. It’s called The Great Commission. Go and tell the whole word. Yet it is more like the idea of Pay It Forward and Love. If we have received the Good News, if the God who is love has loved into our lives, well just try, and stop me from sharing that Good News!
If Christians could just get this idea of the love of God and love one another down, there could be more unity and harmony among us. No one denomination has the complete truth of the Gospel. No one way of worship is clearly better than another. I doubt that it really matters to God how wet we get when Baptized. I’m sure he doesn’t care if we use Grape Juice or wine; a common cup or a bunch of little glasses. It matters not if our hair is long or short. Our churches can have clear windows or stained glass. We can sing to an organ, a guitar or sit in silence. Just let us be tolerant, cooperative, and Love, one another.
What do we do when realize we have made wrong choices; when we have failed to love?
Failing to love is at the root of sin. Choosing not to love God; not to love others; not to love ourselves; even not to love Creation. In the Bible, the Greek word for sin comes from archery. It means to miss the mark. For the most part, for most of us, it means we were doing our best to love and missed the target. For some it is worse, they are not even trying to love, or their love is terribly misguided. However, for us all, God desires for us to remain in his love.
The pathway back to God’s love, is repentance. Again, the Greek is helpful. It means to make a 180, to turn around. As with His love God is readier to forgive than we are to seek forgiveness. Whenever we become aware of our lack of love, our sin, we need to say to God and our neighbor: I was wrong. I’m sorry. please forgive me.
Likewise, whenever someone sins against us, fails to be loving, we need to be ready to return hurt with forgiveness and love. St. Paul puts it this way., “do not overcome evil, with evil, but with goodness (with love)!”
What is love? How is it experienced? What behaviors reveal a loving heart?
Perhaps the best summary comes from that favorite passage of brides, read at most Christian weddings; I Corinthians 13. The whole chapter is usually read but the most important part is a few verses, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “my first,”
Doesn’t become extremely angry,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end. (The Message)
Another way to understand love is to examine what it is not. The people of PREP Inc. Have studied the behaviors that cause marriage (and other relationships to fail). Acting in these ways is not love. It is not so much that conflict is unloving, rather it is about how we behave when conflict occurs. These are the behaviors to avoid.
ESCALATION keep the conflict small. When you begin arguing over who spilled the milk don’t end up discussing who trashed the whole yard.
NEGATIVE INTERPRETATION This behavior generally stems from a sense insecurity. It happens when we negate what the other says. Even positive things appear to us as negative. He says, “I like that dress.” She thinks, “He didn’t like what I wore yesterday!”
INVALIDATION This is a fancy word for a “Put Down.” To use a more common vernacular, it’s when you “dis” (as in disrespect) someone. It is particularly unloving when done in public in front of others.
PREP Inc also teaches people to avoid projecting their own negativity on others by using a communication technique they call XYZ. Roughly stated this is a communication in which X = your behavior Y = the situation or circumstances and, most importantly, Z = my feelings. When you do X in situations like Y, I feel Z. Likewise, they suggest that to avoid “mind reading” we learn to say, “It seems to me.” It is a gentle, more loving, less accusatory communication. “It seems to me this is a wrong decision on your part.” Is better than, “You’re making a big mistake!”
Walk. A mile…
I recently read a Facebook add for Barnes and Noble. It said, “Walk a mile in my shoes and you’ll end up in a bookstore!” I thought how true for me, even though I mostly buy e- books these days. There is a lot of truth in this common folk saying, be it Barnes and Noble, Native American, or someone else. Sharing experience is a key to loving. This is no less than the idea behind what Christians call The Incarnation. God came to live as one of us, in Jesus, to better know us and that we might better walk with Him! Once again notice this is God moving towards us without expecting something from us first.
We don’t often can literally walk that mile, but we often can do the next best thing: really listen. This is such an important aspect of Love that it is part of the moto for the very successful prison ministry of KAIROS: Listen, Listen, Love, Love. To activity listen without condition is an act of affirming love, it allows us to stand alongside and to understand the other.
A central theme of KAIROS is inviting the incarcerated residents to open the door to friendship with God. True friendship is a relationship of love. My favorite definition of a friend is glad you showed up and has no immediate plans for your improvement. This is another way to express unconditional love. God loves us just as we are. Do you hear the refrain of the old familiar hymn? “Just as I am without one plea…”
However, Jesus calls us to take this love one step further. We are to love not only those who love us, our friends. We are also called to love our neighbors. The persons who live where we live, regardless of stereotypes, gender, sexual preference, politics, etc. He even goes as far as to urge us to love our enemies, even those who persecute us.
Are we then to lie down and be door mats for others in the named love?
Well no and yes. Jesus was an advocate for active nonviolent resistance. For example, when he taught that we should “go an extra mile.” In those days of Roman occupation there was a law that soldiers could enlist a civilian to carry their load for one mile. The law was meant to protect the population from soldiers who would make them carry it much further. Once a person started to carry the load a second mile the balance of power shifted from soldier to civilian!
It is in acts like these that Jesus spoke of taking up our crosses and follow him. When we voluntarily suffer for love’s sake we enter the Kingdom of God.
Love and Creativity
Since God created us to love and be loved, by Him and each other, and since The Bible teaches that He created us in His own image, it therefore follows that our creative acts are also acts of I love. This seems to me to be true regardless of the activity. Painters love their subjects and their medium, be it oil or water color, temper or acrylic. Mechanics love their wrenches as well as they love their machines. Bakers love flour and the cakes they make. Musicians love their instruments and the songs they play. Hopefully there are also people in creation from whom and to whom the creative music, and motors flow.
St. Paul urges us saying “Whatever you do in the Name of Christ. He might just as easily said do in the name of love. There is a great line in the movie Chariots of Fire, when Olympian Eric Little tells a reporter, “When I run it gives Him (God) pleasure.”
This is the God inspired activity of the love of life, be it sport, work, play, or leisure. God who is love, is pleased when we live into our creative potential.