Sometimes you get the feeling, when you talk to certain Christians, that they have a surprisingly acute problem with the love of God. It's a touchy subject with them. If you bring it up, they may even have a tendency to change the subject as soon as they can. They move quickly from love to judgement. From mercy to wrath.
How can this be? I'm not sure. But I do run into it all the time. I have heard conservative Christians put down liberal Christians for the way they only want to talk about “love love love” (spoken in a sneering tone) rather than nice meaty things like sin and judgement.
I have heard Christians who seemed very comfortable and eager to talk about God's wrath toward homosexuality, but who will change the subject quickly if you talk about God's love for (among many, many others) homosexual men and women.
Maybe you get into a conversation about evangelism with a fellow Christian. These folks are all about showing people their sin and warning them about hell. They get passionate about it. Their tone gets all authoritarian and resounding as they replicate what they would say to the world out there if they only could, and just how they would say it.
"The world out there." That's the place where people are all wrong about everything, and where people are blind and won't listen to the truth, but it's not (in our Christian mindsets) definitively the place that God loves.
One more thing about this brand of Christianity, this strain that runs through a lot of Christian conservatism. These folk like to speak of someday leaving this lousy world and going to heaven, and of how this world will one day be no more. It will all be swept away. With relish they imagine the time when God's retributive justice will sock it to the unbelieving sinners out there. They'll get it, just you wait and see!
It's after I talk with people like this that I become more determined than ever to be a love Christian in all my dealings. This has profound ramifications for evangelism. In my own experience of conversion, I knew that God loved me before I repented of my sin. It was because he loved me, because his love for me had broken through my blindness and hardness, that I was at last willing to turn from my sin. Simply stated, God had presented me something to turn to and made me to see its worth: a reconciled relationship with Him! And it struck me as the most profoundly beautiful thing in all my experience. Before such love (costly, costly love) who would not repent of all the lesser pursuits that had preoccupied his time up till then?
So, getting back to evangelism, and keeping in mind that evangelism is not normally a 30-second presentation or a billboard-moment on the interstate, but instead it is something that happens within a relationship between a Jesus-follower and an unbeliever, and it happens normally over time, over more than one conversation, and very likely in stages or increments . . . as I say, keeping all this in mind, I think it perfectly appropriate to start out with the love of God.
I do not say this because I am somehow reticent about sin, not wanting to alienate the sinner, but because everything in this whole dang universe began with the love of God within the Godhead. Creation was a Trinitarian act of love. If we could get done arguing about whether it happened in six days or whatever, and just at least realize that it was an action that reflected the essential nature of God as a loving creator, we will have come a long way, baby.
The point is that in God love precedes everything, and love impels His plan for that which he created and men marred. The highest and most profound thing you can say about God is that He is love, that he is in fact the originating genius of creative love, and is restoring the creation because of his love for it.
“Restoring.” This word, this idea that the Creator God is determined to restore his creation, makes all talk about flying away to heaven when we die or of God destroying this evil fallen world seem tragically short-sighted. God isn't wiping the board clean and starting over, he's restoring this place. It's going to be more beautiful and pure than we have ever imagined. We're all going to realize how thoroughly unworthy we are to live in such a place, but God in love has accepted us and given us this unmeasurable mercy . . . to live with him not in some ethereal realm beyond, but here in this green and beautiful world, which he has always loved.
To fail to understand this is indeed to be definitely and tragically “short-sighted.” And it is a short-sightedness that one can only associate with sheer meanness. That is, with a vision that has been twisted from the true by hard-heartedness. In other words, it might just be sin in our own hearts that makes us so famously mean-spirited, we Christians, in the world's reckoning. Those unbelievers may just be onto something!
I read recently that the plan of God is to reverse the hardening that came upon men's hearts with the Fall. I like that turn of phrase: the reversal of the hardening! It is in such hardness of heart that all our wars are born, and all our familial violence. We have not properly diagnosed the residual hardness of our hearts, the residue of cruelty, the strange fervor for harsh judging, the self-righteousness, and so we have not brought our own meanness to the cross in repentance (for it is on account of our hardness of heart that Jesus died on that cross).
Let us deal with our hard-heartedness, which is the plank in our own eye. Let us deal with our plank-impeded vision, short-sightedness, our failure to even begin to plumb the depths (and length and width and breadth) of the love of God. Let us quit poo-pooing the love of God while getting all fervent and eager for his retributive justice. Let us be careful. Let us watch and pray. Let us walk in diligent love. The world needs to see it, this love of God, and to know that it's real and that it has ultimate importance and relevance for them personally.
See also: The Love Thing, The RCs and the LCs
See also: The Love Thing, The RCs and the LCs