The recent bushfires have produced such destruction and suffering as to make even fervent believers wonder about the nature of God’s love. Less dramatic, but just as heart-rending in its way, has been the economic recession, resulting in loss of earnings and increased unemployment. God’s love seems far away.
It is impossible to believe that God loves each of us as normal fathers do, by providing for our needs and protecting us from harm. Even the early disciples, such as St Peter and St Paul, met painful deaths, and the perfectly holy man Jesus suffered most dreadfully. Those who most deserved God’s blessings were not protected by him from pain and suffering. We hope they will be rewarded in heaven. But if God’s love were like that of a human father, they would surely have been blessed with a happy life on earth.
The church is aware of the limitations of God’s love, and most clergy refuse to preach a prosperity gospel. Instead they rightly focus on the amazing ways in which God has blessed humankind. He has given us an extraordinarily bountiful world which, with hard work and wise management, can meet our physical needs. He has revealed his will for us through his priests and prophets, through his Son Jesus, and through the Bible, showing us that we should worship him and love one another. In his love, we are taught, he forgives us our sins. And finally, God’s love is manifest in the fellowship of his Church, whose members exhibit that forgiving, supporting grace that we can see in Jesus.
These beliefs about God’s provision and God’s will are so familiar that their significance can sometimes be overlooked. Many people think such religious beliefs are irrelevant to society at large. It is good that church leaders are pointing out their social implications more and more frequently and clearly, urging believers to show compassion for the needy, respect for people of other cultures, and justice in economic affairs. As Christians express these values in their public lives, their faith earns increasing respect.
Focus on the social benefits of Christianity, however, is in danger of obscuring an absolutely central, vital feature of God’s love. One can belong to a church and enjoy its fellowship yet feel that God is still very distant from one’s own life. We are in danger of forgetting that God’s love is personal, that he knows us individually, that he is always with us, that he has a particular good will for each of us, and is willing and able to help us achieve it.
How do people discover God’s love for them as individuals? The way is familiar, but no less important for that. People must discover, not just that God loves them, but that he has a particular will for them to express His love for those around them. This will is not just one option among many, for it is the will of their creator, who is entirely good and wise. Once people realise this, they are generally moved to acknowledge his authority and commit themselves to obey him.
The personal love of God is discovered in trying to obey his will. One of the first problems one encounters is the waywardness of one’s nature, the limitations of one’s understanding, and the barriers of resentment and frustration at having to give up one’s own desires for God’s. We turn to Jesus for help, we pray for forgiveness of our failures, and for wisdom and guidance in deciding what to do, and for a willingness to suffer humiliation in carrying out God’s will. It is when these prayers are offered and answered that we discover the personal love of God. He helps us, meeting our particular needs as we attempt to obey him. As Jesus taught his disciples: “If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love.” (John, 15: 10)
It is quite common to preach the gift of the Holy Spirit to believers, as evidence of God’s love, and to note the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace and so on as entirely desirable and admirable. But what is less often explained is how one comes to be blessed by the Spirit, to acquire these fruits oneself. The path of obedience, repentance, prayer and submission seems rather demanding, but these make possible a life led and empowered by his Holy Spirit.
Personal submission to God’s will is very unattractive to many people today. It seems to involve a shameful loss of independence and integrity, a pathetic submission to the will of another. Once God is thought to be dead, as Nietzsche knew so well, then the individual can reign supreme. Our largely secular society has applauded independence and self-assertion, a life of pride and prosperity. But independence is a mirage: we are almost entirely dependent on one another. And self-assertion is evil if it involves the exploitation of others. Integrity is only as good as the values it expresses.
The alternative to a society of proudly independent people, is the Kingdom of God, in which people respect and love one another in a self-transcending community. Such communities are animated by God’s love, by his Holy Spirit working in each individual as they obey his command to honour him and love one another. In obeying God, people discover, not just the fruits of the Spirit in their lives, but the joy of discovering God’s loving support at every turn.