Is God defined by love or love defined by God?
Over the past month or so, we have been tracing out one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s more challenging statements. He wrote: That is the first commandment, the entire gospel. “Fear God”- instead of the many things which you fear. This is a dangerous statement. How can we fear God and live in freedom at the same time? Everything in us recoils from a call to taking God seriously. There is too much danger. There is too much at stake. There is too much on the line. So let us revisit the question.
Would it not be so much easier if we could define God by love instead of defining love by God?
Perhaps. The problem is that we are not given this luxury. God reveals himself as he is and tells us to believe. He creates Adam, he casts him out of the garden. He saves Moses and Israel, then keeps the entire generation out of the Promised Land. He smites in the prophets. He hates in the psalms. And it does not get easier when he shows up to live among us.
Jesus was a hard guy to get along with. Still is. Was it not Jesus who crashed the church party with a whip and his bare hands? Was it not Jesus who called out one of his buddies, referring to him as “Satan?” Was it not Jesus who drove an entire crowd away, telling them to eat his flesh and drink his blood? Was it not Jesus who then prodded his closest friends to leave?
Well, aren’t you guys going to leave, too?
Peter’s answer to this question goes back to this problem of an unyielding God. He says:
Master, to whom else will we go? We believe you have the words of life.
Translation: We are pretty sure you are God, therefore we are out of options.
This is the beginning of the gospel, believe it or not. Is this not the type of faith Jesus promised to build his church on top of? Peter has it right. The beginning of life is to realize that only God has it to give. He may be an inconvenient God but he is the only one who will come through on his promises. He is that unrelenting. He is that powerful. He is that stubborn.
You see, it is the best possible news to hear that God is on his own program.
We can agree with such a statement all day but it will never make a difference until we listen to all of what he has to say. We will miss out on why this is good news if we give up too easily. Yes, God is on his own program. Yes, God has been working this plan- without flaw or change- since before his started the world with a word. Yes, God’s invitation to live is accompanied with an assumption that refusal means death. Yes, God in the flesh was hard to get along with and impossible to understand. If we give up here though, we will miss out on why this is the best news our ears will ever hear.
The good news, the “gospel”, about God is that he has made up his mind to love us. He has made up his mind to care for his people. He has made up his mind to shower the just and the unjust with rain- both nourishing and flooding. He has made up his mind to live among us. He has made up his mind to pray for his people. He has made up his mind to come not only as Judge but as sentenced. I like the fact that God is stubborn here. As crazy as I am I cannot imagine how much worse I would be if God were fickle like…oh…say, me.
In the program of God, call it his plan, his will, his design or whatever, he has decided to be for us. Can you get your mind around that? Me neither.
It is because of Jesus, in his coming to live among us, lived for us.
It is because he died for us.
It is because his new life he raised to is our new life.
It is because he is active now, praying for his people.
It is because he has promised to come back for his wife (that’s us, his people)
That, and that alone, is why we can live without fear. Did you see that? We can live without fear. Without fear. Without fear. Can you picture a morning that was fear-free? Can you imagine a day when you were not afraid of failure in your job, your marriage, your finances, your relationships, joblessness, homelessness, other people, tsunamis, presidential elections? Or how about this, can you imagine a day completely free from fear that you will sin? Seriously? Can you imagine a day when you see your guilt get up and leave you- like Elvis has left the building- and attach itself to Jesus Christ?
Do you know that he wants that for you?
Look at John’s little letter to some Christians- 1 John 4:17, if we are being specific. Jesus’ friend tells us that we should not fear judgment. Wait, he did not say that- he says more. Look: This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment. Not just that we will move past our constant fears but that we will be bold in the face of God’s judgment. He wants us to be so confident that he will not take back his “Yes” for us that we are not even afraid to die right now and stand before him. He wants us to believe he is really that stubborn- in the face of whatever baggage we carry into the situation.
And this is what John means by telling us that perfect love casts out all fear. Once we believe that God is irrevocably, unrelentingly, stubbornly for us, we start to shift from being afraid of what he will do to us to a bold confidence that what he says is true.
If Christ says come unto me all who are weary and I will give you rest, that is exactly what he means.
If God promises to give us a new heart, that is exactly what he will do.
If Jesus promises to pray for us till he comes back again, we have no choice but to believe his word.
So just like Peter we are brought to a place where we are without choice. This is the place, believe it or not, of freedom. We have been too long enslaved in the work-camps of fear, condemnation, uncertainty and shame. Here is a true word from God that will free us from these terrors.
God is for us.