God is love, and to know Him is to love Him. For “we love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).1 This knowledge is crucial to our salvation. As Jesus says, life eternal is knowing the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He sent (John 17:3). Tragically most humans do not know Him and therefore do not know that He is love. They have accepted the picture of Him painted and presented by Satan, a picture of one “whose chief attribute is stern justice—one who is a severe judge, a harsh, exacting creditor” “watching with jealous eye to discern the errors and mistakes of men, that He may visit judgments upon them.”2
Ellen White equates this misunderstanding of God’s character to darkness: “It is the darkness of misapprehension of God that is enshrouding the world. Men are losing their knowledge of His character. It has been misunderstood and misinterpreted”3
This article examines three of the several aspects of God’s love that may cast light upon the darkness of human misunderstanding and satanic distortion. At the same time, we look forward to the constantly growing brilliance of eternity where the study and understanding of God’s love will be our ceaseless theme and the inexhaustible focus of our study. Our threescore and 10 years can barely scratch the surface of this glorious topic.
Christ our Lord highlights the difference between human love and God’s love in the Sermon on the Mount. First He described human love: “You have heard that it wassaid, ‘You shall love yourneighbor and hate your enemy’ ” (Matt. 5:43).
Most humans are capable of feeling quite comfortable with such an idea of love. I love you because you are lovable; I love you because you love me; I love you because you please me; I love you because you have aroused my love for you by your good deeds, etc. Thus our good deeds are little investments from which we hope to reap future returns. When these deeds are not reciprocated, we are disappointed.
Among the Yoruba tribe of Nigeria is a tradition of individuals contributing to meet the funeral expenses of a friend or neighbor whose mother or father has died. Funerals can be expensive because the bereaved, as part of the funeral program, must feed all who attend the funeral program. But whereas these cash donations are supposed to be a gesture of love, they are required to be reciprocated when those who donate money must bury their own parent. Reciprocal, quid pro quo affection is the best love that humans can naturally give.
In contrast to this selfish love Jesus Christ gives God’s love as loving one’s enemies, blessing those who curse us, doing good to those who hate us, and praying for those who spitefully use us and persecute us (see Matt. 5:44). This unique love was revealed on the cross for humanity: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). While we were still actively rebelling against God, He sent His only begotten Son to die for us!
Some years ago, in the city of Abeokuta, capital of Ogun state in Nigeria, fire broke out in the house of a couple and their four daughters about 1:00 a.m. Everyone was asleep. The fire started in the very room occupied by the four girls. Awakened by the confusion, their horrified father rushed into the flaming room to rescue his daughters, but all in vain. The hungry inferno claimed him, as well as all four of his beloved daughters.
His heroic act has given me much thought. But even as I have reflected upon his sacrifice I have asked myself: Would that father have risked—and given—his life if the four human beings inside the burning house were armed and hostile robbers who were no relatives of his?
My thoughts run this way because that is exactly what Jesus did for you and me. While you and I were still sinners—stillstealing, still killing fellow human beings, and generally still making ourselves unlovable, He rushed into the fire of sin knowing that it would cost Him His life, knowing that His death was the only hope of rescue for us! This is love without condition. It is God’s love.
Moreover, since Jesus loved us most supremely while we were utterly unlovable, we cannot do anything to make Him love us more by striving to be either nicer or less obnoxious. Nor can we do anything to make Him love us less! He loves us unconditionally: amazing love!
Our God says of Himself: “I am the Lord, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob” (Mal. 3:6). Since God is love and He does not change, it means His love for us is constant, everlasting. As He says through the prophet Jeremiah: “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you” (Jer. 31:3).
Our continued sinning surely jeopardizes our soul; our contempt for the pleading blood of Calvary puts Jesus and His sacrifice to an open shame (Heb. 6:6). And God hates sin. But does His hatred for sin and His wasted gift of salvation cause God to stop loving us? This is not the message of Malachi. To the extent that God cannot change, God will not turn or terminate His love because we spurn Him. He will continue to love us though we shall definitely reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7).
Why did Jesus weep over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41)? Because He loved them still. He had come to His own; His own had rejected Him (John 1:11). With prophetic eyes He could see what would happen to them in A.D. 70. It grieved His loving heart, and He wept. Everlasting love is no less emotional for being divine. Divine love weeps when the object of love is going astray.
Years ago a notorious, armed robber named Anini was terrorizing Nigerians. Several attempts by the police to catch him failed, and he continued to commit armed robberies. Across the country people felt insecure.
Eventually it was announced that he had been captured. Every Nigerian breathed a sigh of relief at the capture of this notorious public figure. People everywhere looked forward to the day of his execution as the day a national menace would finally be eliminated.
On March 29, 1987, Lawrence Nomayagbon Anini, just 26 years old, was executed. People rejoiced. But one woman wept bitterly that day. It was Anini’s mother. Even though Anini was a hardened criminal, responsible for 20 murders, including 11 police officers in a period of four months, he was still her son.
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb?” (Isa. 49:15). God is asking us. He gives the answer Himself: “Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me” (verses 15, 16).
Thus even if Anini’s mother had not been saddened by the death of her son, God would still have grieved because He loved Anini, unconditionally, everlastingly. Choosing to continue in sin does not make God stop loving us. Rather, it makes Him weep because we reap what we sow.
What value is there in causing God to grieve?
Perhaps the most mind-boggling aspect of God’s love is its self-sacrificing nature. In order to save us, God the Son became one of us, assumed our guilt, and died the death we should die. He “was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His. ‘With His stripes we are healed’ [Isa. 53:5, KJV].”4
Ellen White gives us yet a deeper insight into this sacrifice. The enormity of our sins He bore was such that He “could not see through the portals of the tomb. Hope did not present to Him His coming forth from the grave a conqueror, or tell Him of the Father’s acceptance of the sacrifice. He feared that sin was so offensive to God that Their separation was to be eternal.”5
While not being sure of whether He would resurrect or not if He died for us, He had a choice to make—either to abandon the work of salvation and save Himself, as Satan tempted Him to do (see Matt. 27:39-44), or die for us and possibly perish. But as the history of the human race came up before the world’s Redeemer and He saw that we were doomed without Him; as He saw that humans as lawbreakers, “if left to themselves, must perish”; as He saw our helplessness, and the power of sin, “the woes and lamentations of a doomed world [rose] before Him. He [beheld] its impending fate, and His decision [was] made. He [would] save man at any cost to Himself.”6
Centuries before, a Jewish woman in exile had played, in microcosm, the role that Jesus would play on the stage of the entire universe: “If I perish, I perish,” she said (Esther 4:16). And Jesus would say the same: Even if I am forever separated from the Father, so long as human beings are saved, it is all right with Me! “For the joy that was set before Him, [He] endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).
The love of God revealed on the cross is unconditional, everlasting, and self-sacrificing. Paul explains the powerful, persuasive effect this love has on those who understand it: “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:14, 15). Any response less than this is no response to this amazing love!