Does God love me? The messy, sinful me?
Recently, a friend sent me the book, “He Loves Me! Learning to Live in the Father’s Affection.” In the first chapter, author Wayne Jacobsen compares our relationship to the Father’s love to a child pulling petals off a daisy.
“He loves me, He loves me not. He loves me, He loves me not.”
Circumstances and emotions dictate how we feel about God’s love towards us, and it turns our Christian experience into an ever-changing round of petal-pulling. He describes the chaotic ups and downs of our perception of God’s love:
I got a raise. He loves me.Wayne Jacobsen, He Loves Me! page 4
I didn’t get the promotion I wanted; I lost my job altogether. He loves me not!
Something in the Bible inspired me today. He loves me!
My child is seriously ill. He loves me not!
I gave money to someone in need. He loves me!
I let my anger get the best of me. He loves me not!
Something for which I prayed actually happened. He loves me!
I stretched the truth to get myself out of a tight spot. He loves me not!
A friend called me unexpectedly to encourage me. He loves me!
My car needs a new transmission. He loves me not!
In this sense, the Father’s love is subject to my own perception of it. When His love seems real and tangible, then I believe in it. But when I feel unworthy of that love, or when circumstances give no outward display of the love that has been set upon me since before I was born, I no longer believe in it.
I become like the Pharisees, always seeking a sign from Christ before I will believe.
Does God love me? How can I be sure?
In today’s post I would like us to remember some key facts about the love of God, and two reasons why we chronically doubt this love.
Does God Love Me? Biblical Reminders
Let us remember that what we know about God’s love comes to us from the Bible, not from our own faulty perceptions. Thus, when we ask the question, “does God love me?” we must turn to the Word–the only reliable source of truth.
Here are some key passages from Scripture about God’s love.
God’s Love Operates Independently of My Goodness
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Romans 5:6-8
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.Ephesians 2:4-6
God’s Love Embraces Everyone, Including Me
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.John 3:16
2 Peter 3:9
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
God’s Love Is Consistent in All Circumstances
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:38-39
God Is Constantly Working to Draw Our Hearts to His Love
Now may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience of Christ.2 Thessalonians 3:5
God’s Love Is Expressed in Saving Acts
In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.1 John 4:9-10
The Father and the Son Love Us Equally
In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.John 16:26-27
Does God Love Me? Then Why Do I Doubt It?
Reading about God’s love can be so comforting–at least for a moment. Then, it seems like all the beautiful truths of Scripture go out the window.
Why does it seem like Biblical comfort is so fickle, so temporary, so dependent upon our emotions?
There are a few reasons why we chronically ask the painful question, “does God love me…? Does He really?” Let’s try troubleshooting the underlying issues that might be afflicting the person who fails to get lasting comfort from God’s Word.
Issue 1: We Are Using a Circumstantial Interpretive Lens
We all use an interpretive lens to reach our conclusions. One of these lenses is the lens of circumstance.
Does God love me? I guess not. My life stinks. If God really loved me, things would be going better for me than they are right now.
We may look at our current situation to search for clues of God’s favor or lack thereof. One that I have always struggled with is answered or unanswered prayer. When things don’t turn out the way I requested, it can easily make me feel like God doesn’t care enough to intervene in my life. I forget the fact that God often says “no” for very good reasons, and I immediately interpret unanswered prayer to mean that God could have helped me but didn’t care enough to do so.
Disappointments have always been a stumbling block for God’s people. I’ve been reading Philip Yancey’s book Disappointed with God and am struck by the stories he tells of people who turned from God in disillusionment. Their understanding of His love was shallow. They thought love meant a transaction: if I love God and give Him my heart, He’ll make my life a bed of roses.
Then, when life isn’t a bed of roses, we turn from God, or we sink beneath a terrible feeling that He doesn’t love us.
All of us have had disappointments and sorrows–but some people have had genuine traumas. In cases of abuse, abandonment, or betrayal, it is hard to hold onto our belief in God’s love. God could have stopped it, couldn’t He? But He didn’t. Why?
There is no easy answer to these questions, and I won’t pretend to have a pre-boxed solution. But I do know that it is unfair to rate God’s love based on the circumstances of life, especially when we see that Jesus–the Son of God–encountered much worse abuse, abandonment, and betrayal than any of us could imagine. When we look at the cross of Calvary, we know that God is not standing afar off, hygienically isolated from our messy world. He suffered, too. He went through awful circumstances, too.
But Jesus never gave up on the love of His Father.
There are a million reasons why God may allow difficulties into our lives. To grow our faith, to give us sympathy for others, to develop a Christlike character, to protect us from greater difficulties…
A high school Bible teacher once told me, “God doesn’t waste His time placing worthless ore in the fire. If we experience trials, it is because God sees something valuable in us that is worth developing.” If we take such sentiments to heart, we will be enabled to go through the fire without questioning God’s love for us.
But let’s go a little deeper here. How does the “circumstantial lens” principle apply to people with religious OCD?
As anxious, obsessive believers, our circumstantial lens typically shows up via magical thinking, completion of compulsivity, and moral self-analysis.
Magical thinking, as we’ve discussed elsewhere, is the habitual focus on coincidence and unrelated factors. It is the classical “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” fear. Everyone knows that stepping on cracks has no empirical relationship to your mother’s spinal column, but children (and even adults) with obsessive-compulsive disorder can fastidiously avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk.
Just in case.
People with religious OCD might be thinking magically if they:
- Use special, self-invented “signs” to indicate whether God loves them or not (such as seeing a specific type of bird, seeing a certain number, or hearing a certain song)
- Connect the dots on a string of events that “appear” to prove God is displeased with them (such as getting in a car accident, followed several days later by an unrelated rebuke from the pastor, followed a few hours later by randomly flipping the Bible open and landing on a scary passage)
- Feel particularly close to God when things in life are going well, but feel cast off and abandoned whenever trials come
- Use a “Bible Horoscope” method for gaining reassurance of God’s love (that is, flipping the Bible open randomly and hoping for a good verse, or using the “verse of the day” app to indicate God’s present favor or displeasure)
If you’ve been trying to answer the question, “does God love me?” through magical signs and coincidences, please take a moment to think this through again. Is God really like that?
Completion of Compulsivity
Another way people with religious OCD use a circumstantial lens to discover if God loves them is through the completion of their compulsive activities. Religious compulsions differ from healthy spiritual disciplines even though they may look quite similar on the outside. Prayer, witnessing, Bible study, charity, rejecting the pleasures of the world, and confessing sin can all be done in a healthy way or a neurotic way.
What’s the difference, then, between a compulsion and a normal spiritual discipline?
Compulsions are not done for the glory of God, the enjoyment of the believer, or growth in grace and holiness. Strictly speaking, they are done for anxiety mitigation.
But too often, we use these compulsions to prove to ourselves that God loves us. It is a subtle thing, but follow my line of thinking: when you finally complete your compulsion perfectly, don’t you get a little surge of good feelings, of spiritual relief? Isn’t it easy to interpret that good feeling (fleeting though it may be) as a sign of God’s approval?
This misinterpretation is what keeps many sufferers stuck in the loop of obsessions and compulsions. At the end of the cycle, when we’ve completed that compulsion “properly,” we get a rush of relief that honest-to-goodness can feel like God is giving us a pat on the back.
Good job! You just prayed for your food for twenty minutes straight trying to get your prayer “just right.” Now your family is annoyed, your food is cold, your atheist uncle is laughing in mockery at the God you serve. But you’ve finally done it–you got your prayer exactly correct–every word, every emotion, every motive, and every visualization were done properly. You feel a sense of relief. Finally, you can move on. God accepts you!
But notice, there’s a difference between relief and the true, lasting joy of the spirit. Those little “God moments” when He showers His love on us in an extra-special way are not the same as the emotional relief we get from completing a compulsion.
That feeling of relief has absolutely nothing to do with God’s love for you. He loved you even before you started that anxious compulsion.
A third way we can use a circumstantial interpretive lens when we ask “does God love me?” is by looking at our own moral performance. Did we “do well” today? Did we keep our tongue from speaking evil? Did we look away from any defiling images? Did we push away all unchristlike thoughts? Did we have all the right actions, thoughts, feelings, motives, and urges?
If so, we tend to feel pretty optimistic about God’s love for us. (Cue the theme music for self-righteous legalism.)
But if we’ve made any spiritual or moral mistakes, it can feel like we’ve just slipped off the edge of God’s favor and are dangling a few feet above hell.
Can you see that this is all in our perception? God loves us, even when we are sinning and sinful. He loves us when we are holy and unblemished just as much as he loves us when we are like the prodigal son in the pigsty.
When I grow in grace, allowing Christ to form His righteous character in me through the indwelling of His Spirit, this is a good thing on many accounts:
- It benefits Christian witness
- It builds up the Kingdom of God on earth
- It glorifies God and makes Him happy
- It protects me from the dangers of sin and makes me happy
- It blesses others and makes them happy
But please note, my growth in grace, though it is a very positive and good thing (and I do recommend Biblical sanctification), does not cause God to love me one particle more than He loved me before.
Does God love me when I am a mess of a sinner? Yes. Does God love me when I have been halfway formed into that spotless bride of Christ? Yes. And will God love me when I am finally changed into a glorified body and my sinful nature is taken away at His second coming? Yes!
How I wish I could get it through my thick head and keep it there: His love is consistent throughout my entire lifetime. It doesn’t ride the waves up and down with my moral performance. It doesn’t decrease and diminish with my failures and surge forward with my spiritual successes. It is, perhaps, the only truly stable thing in this ever-changing world. Why, then, do we try to evaluate God’s love based on the ups and downs of our growth patterns?
Issue 2: We Are Using an Emotional Interpretive Lens
The first interpretive lens that can cause issues in our ability to sense God’s love is a circumstantial interpretive lens. The second is an emotional interpretive lens.
This lens is very easy to explain but hard to escape. It is the mode of thinking that says, “My emotions are the indicator of God’s love for me.”
I am sure you have seen small toddlers playing the in park. They throw a few fistfuls of sand, pick a dandelion, squeal in delight at a passing butterfly, and then…
Every so often, the toddler experiences an urge to “check in” with Mom (or Dad). They need that little boost of reassurance that Mom is still there watching protectively, sharing the toddler’s delight, ready to step in if needed. The toddler needs reassurance of Moms’ love.
We, too, as adults, have an urge to “check in” periodically with our Heavenly Father. We need reminders of His love. It gives us a cozy, safe feeling that lets us continue exploring and mastering our world. The psalmist described this phenomenon by saying, “the eyes of all look expectantly to You” (Psalm 145:15).
When we use an emotional interpretive lens, this normal spiritual process of “checking in” gets disrupted. Instead of looking to God for this natural reassurance, we look at our own emotions.
This might not be too bad if we were the uber-optimistic type. But we’re not. People who struggle with scrupulosity tend to religious pessimists. Our minds are magnetically drawn towards death, hell, and destruction by default. And let’s face it, our pessimism can create some really negative feelings. As they say, “garbage in, garbage out.” When we think negative thoughts, negative feelings will follow.
Let me give you an imaginary internal dialogue that I’m having with myself. See if you can predict what kind of feelings this sort of talk will produce.
Man, I’m such a worthless Christian. I can hardly read my Bible without getting distracted. I’ve been sitting here for an HOUR and I’ve just been reading like a total dummy. Those preachers and authors get such wonderful content from their devotions. Not like me. I don’t “get” anything out of my devotions. Maybe it’s because I have sin in my life? Do I have any unconfessed sin? I can’t think of any…but maybe that’s because I’ve seared my conscience. Yes, that must be it! I don’t even feel sorry for what I did, even though I don’t know what I did…so that must mean there’s something REALLY wrong with my spiritual life. Otherwise, I’d be “getting something” from my devotions every day…you know, like a “God moment,” or the spine tingles, or something that proves God loves me. But maybe He doesn’t love me, because I’ve done something wrong and I can’t figure out what it is…
If you had thoughts like this (and maybe you do), what sort of emotions are produced by this “stinkin’ thinkin’?” By the time you’ve let your brain go in circles for just a few minutes, you’ll probably be feeling like the most worthless, low-down, hopeless believer in the world.
It is in such a state that many of us decide to ask, “Does God love me?” And we look at our feelings for the answer.
Spoiler: the answer will never be a good one.
We’ve discussed this in many other posts, so I risk beating a dead horse here, but emotions are a terrible, terrible indicator of reality. The “does God love me” question is particularly fraught with danger in this arena, because God’s love is quite often something we don’t feel.
Yes, you heard me right: often, we do not feel God’s love.
That’s because it isn’t something that is primarily perceived by our emotional faculties. God’s love is a principle, broad and deep and eternal, which operates towards the just and the unjust. It holds the universe together. It is the heartbeat of creation. God is Love is written on every flower, every blade of grass, every dewdrop that sparkles in the sun.
You do not feel the rotation of the earth, but you know that it moves. Just so, God’s love isn’t always something we perceive as a fuzzy feeling or a spine-tingling burst of encouragement. It is the deep, abiding motive that took Jesus to the cross two thousand years ago. It is the unheard groaning of the Holy Spirit as He prays for us with unutterable anguish. It is the patient waiting of the Father for the Prodigal to come home.
God’s love is so quiet we might miss it if we are looking in the wrong direction. His love isn’t like the loud, flashy gestures of the lady’s man which gives us butterflies in our stomach but quickly fades away. It is more like the blue collar worker who goes to his labor every day and steadily sacrifices in sweat and weariness to care for the ones he loves.
The love of God is seen in His sacrifice, not in flamboyance.
This is why it is fundamentally flawed to check our emotions for reassurance of God’s love. We are looking in the wrong place, like the petty wife who ignores the more substantial indicators of her husband’s love because she is looking for an exciting spark of Hollywood romance.
Let us not use our emotions as indicators of God’s love. Does God love us? Yes. Has He proven His love in ways that cause the angels to gasp in surprise? Yes. When we “check in” with our Father, let us check in with the Word rather than with our fickle emotions. We will get a much more accurate response!
Does God love me? Yes. Will I always feel it in warm fuzzy ways? No, not always. Will my circumstances always give me a fortune-cookie indicator of God’s love? No, hardly.
God loves us. He loves me, and He loves you, dear reader.
There is nothing wrong with our need to “check in” and find comfort in God’s love. God’s love is the bedrock that helps us through life’s difficulties and it is the theme music to our most joyful celebrations. Knowing and connecting with that love is one of the Christian’s greatest blessings.
We just need to take care that we are not trying to connect with that love through faulty lenses. I would invite you to make or renew your commitment to taking God at His Word. Choose to shun feeling-based condemnations of yourself. Choose to see God’s love surrounding you in the good times and the bad, and do not interpret circumstances to mean His love has faltered.
As we gain a more steady, stable view of our Father’s love, we, like the secure toddler in the park, will develop greater confidence to explore and enjoy our world. We will spend less time consulting our anxieties and more time living the “abundant life” that God designed for us.
Thanks for taking the time to read these thoughts. Now, I’d like to know about you. How have you learned to see God’s love in a more stable way? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!
Best wishes on the journey,