I love Christmas break because it gives me a chance to do things I don’t get to do very often during the rest of the school year, like watch movies. I love movies, and it’s fun to catch up on a long break. This Christmas, two in particular caught my attention. The first was the latest James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” (I streamed that one). The other I saw in the theater: “Spiderman: No Way Home.”
As a bit of a spoiler alert, but without completely ruining the ending of either movie, both lead characters, James Bond and Peter Parker, give up everything at the end for the people they love. Most of the time I walk away from movies entertained, but I forget them soon after. Those movies that really haunt me, those that resonate, are often those where the hero or heroine makes an ultimate sacrifice for love.
That’s really the definition of love, after all: to be all for another. To care about someone so much that you’ll give everything. Love is not measured by what you get out of it-that’s selfishness- but by what you give. Like Peter Parker or James Bond, when it comes time to finally test the character of each, what makes him the hero is that he chooses to sacrifice, to love.
Whether you’ve ever loved anyone like that, chances are you’ve been loved that way. Those who loved you the most-your mom and dad–are the people who gave up the most for you. They loved to give. Every Christmas morning since my kids were born, my most enjoyable moments are watching them open their presents, seeing their excitement and gratitude. Jesus said, “even you who are evil (meaning all of us) know how to give good gifts to our children.” And, we do.
And, it’s so often we miss this really important truth about God: that he also loves to give good things to us, because of his deep and profound love for His children. He doesn’t just give; he loves to give. I was reminded of these truths recently by Dane Ortlund in his “Gentle and Lowly,” a book I highly recommend.
One of the worst effects of the fall of man is that it changed our thinking about God, giving us false views about who He is, what He’s like, and what He wants. These thoughts keep us cool and unloving towards him when our hearts should be hot and seeking after him.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, we believe that God is somehow ashamed or dissatisfied with us, always thinking we can do better. We may even look at the Old Testament particularly and think he’s a god who enjoys smiting people, a God who is just looking for people to judge. It’s this jaded view of God that leads others to believe that God’s people, we Christians are bigots, or haters, or “whatever”-phobes. That God, and by extension, his people, have our list of what constitutes the right way to live, the “Christian” way, and if you can’t meet that standard, God and we are just waiting to smack you.
You may feel this way about God, and if you do, it’s no wonder it inhibits your intimacy with him. Who would want to be intimate with someone they thought was just looking for an excuse to come down on them, like a hyper-stern or even abusive parent?
The reality is that even in the Old Testament, God reveals himself to be anything but hyper-stern. In Exodus 34, Moses asks God to reveal himself. God passes by Moses, putting him in a cleft in the rock because Moses can’t look at God’s face and live. As he’s passing by, God tells Moses who he is: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” (v. 6-7). What he means here is that he is merciful and gracious, and that while the impact of our sin is felt on our children (which you may have experienced, like I have, if you come from children or grandchildren of alcoholics or children of divorce), by contrast his faithfulness and forgiveness and love is felt for thousands of people and generations.
In Lamentations 3:33, when God speaks of disciplining the people, he says through the prophet, “He does not from his heart afflict nor grieve the children of men.” Yet, when it comes to showing mercy, it says he does it, “with His whole heart, and with His whole soul.” He means that he loves to show mercy, and he’ll bring hardship as necessary, but he doesn’t really enjoy it.
The point here is that, contrary to our jaded thoughts about God, he is first and foremost a God of love and of mercy. He wants with all his heart to give us good things, because he loves us, and only brings judgment and discipline when absolutely necessary. He’s not excited about it when he does.
This doesn’t mean that God is not truly and fully a god of justice, as well as a god of mercy. He is fully and completely just, which is what we actually want. As we look around the world and see horrible evil, we don’t want it to stand. In both the movies and in real life, we don’t want the bad guys to get away with it. We want to know that in the end, God will make it right. And, deep down, we know that He can’t make evil right with everyone else, but not deal with the evil in our own hearts.
As mature human beings, we realize that no one ever actually becomes stronger or better through easy times, when we aren’t facing tension or struggle. It’s only through those things we grow, which is why James 1 says, “consider it all joy when you face various trials, knowing that the testing of your hearts produces perseverance, and let perseverance yield its perfect result, that you may be full and complete, lacking in nothing.”
The challenging, hard things that happen to us all go through God’s hand to discipline, mold and shape us, but they are not God’s “default mode,” not what he prefers to do. As Ortland says, “God is not reluctant about the ultimate good that is going to be brought about through that pain; that indeed is why he is doing it. But something recoils within him in sending that affliction. The pain itself does not reflect his heart.”
The best way to understand this is by thinking about ourselves as parents, and about our own parents when they disciplined us. When we were kids, we’d always laugh about the dad who said, “son, this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you,” but as adults, we know it’s true. No loving father or mother enjoys disciplining their children. They hate it, and would prefer to avoid it if they could. If given the choice between Christmas morning and disciplining their kids, they’d pick Christmas every single time. But no loving parent fails to discipline their kids, either, because they realize that, even though Christmas is way more fun and what they’d rather do, nobody really becomes a person of deeper character on Christmas.
At the end of the day, God’s ultimate demonstration of his heart for us, his deepest description of who he is, is the Cross. Because God is a god of love, and the greatest proof of love is what we’re willing to sacrifice. God sacrificed everything at Calvary so that he wouldn’t have to bring judgment and punishment down on us. He visited that judgment on his son, who took on the weight and burden of our sin. In so doing, God showed us who he really is, and how he loves us.
This new year, I pray you’ll truly see and understand how very loved you are by your good Father in Heaven, and that you’ll respond to that love by seeing him as he is, not through the lens of darkness and sin: a God who wants more than anything to show you his mercy and love. Only by knowing that we are truly, deeply loved can we love well.
Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.