Marsha Kaitz, a psychology professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, did a test to see how well mothers know their babies. According to the Associated Press, the forty-six mothers chosen for the test had all given birth in the previous five to seventy-nine hours. They had all breast-fed their newborn.
Each mother was then blindfolded and asked to identify which of the three sleeping babies was her own. Nearly seventy percent of the mothers correctly chose their baby. Most of the mothers said they knew their child by the texture or temperature of the infant’s hand. The women apparently learned the identifying features during routine contact, said Kaitz, because they weren’t allowed to study their babies to prepare for the experiment.22
To what extent does God love us? “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…,” Jesus cried out, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” (Luke 13:34). Like a mother’s love and affection for her child, so is the Lord’s love for his children. He is passionate about his kids! Prayer and communion with God is entirely built on this truth.
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See I have engraved you on the palms of my hands….” So says Isaiah (49:15-16 NIV). The Lord does not forget his people, even in times of personal and corporate failure, gross and wanton infidelity. He keeps us permanently before his watchful eye; he has engraved us on the palms of his hands. The closest comparison of such a perfect and unfailing love is that between a mother and her infant child. The total need of the infant is so great that only the watchful eye of the ever-caring, cautious mother is equal to the task. But though the best of human love may fail—a mother may do the unthinkable and abandon her child, as the prophet Isaiah above implies—the Lord will never leave or forsake his children. Indeed, God literally yearns for his people (Jer 31:20). Remember Jesus and the painful tears he shed over Jerusalem.
In 1973 a California newspaper carried a story about a discovery made by astronomers in the giant observatory at the University of California. The scientists picked up radio signals from a body in space that they estimated to be about fifty million light years from earth. Prior to that the most distant object known was about ten million light years from earth. Distances such as these go well beyond our comprehension, much like the infinite boundaries of God’s love toward us: “For as high as the heaven is above the earth so great is his love for those who fear him” (Ps 103:11).
God’s love is breath-taking. Like the starry universe on a clear black night, it possesses limitless character. It has limitless intensity and will not be defeated. The apostle Paul was convinced that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, would be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). The love of God secured us and the love of God keeps us. It will never run out.
A young woman grew up in dire poverty in the heartland of the country. A benefactor made it possible for her to take a trip to the coast where for the first time she saw the ocean. Enraptured, she stood gazing at its vastness. In awe she was heard to say, “Thank God for something for which there is more than enough!” So it is with God’s love!
We have been saying, since the first lesson, that knowing God is integral to prayer, lest our prayers degenerate into babble or the like. Therefore, we talked about God’s personality, his greatness and infinity, and his holiness, righteousness and justice. It is time now to meditate on his love, holy love as I prefer to think about it. We will touch on several aspects of this amazing attribute, including its grace, mercy, and indefatigable persistence. And further, in this study, we will look at how God’s holiness and his love come together to purchase his “presence in peace” for the Christian.
The truth of God’s love belongs together with the truth of his holiness, like partners in a perfect marriage. They must never be divorced, though I fear our churches have oft times plotted the couple’s demise. Therefore, since holiness is integral to a proper, biblical understanding of love, so is the realization of our sinfulness. Indeed, the sheer bottomless depth of God’s love can only be appreciated when seen in the light of how unlovely, irreverent and undeserving we are. I am not saying that we are worthless, but we are indeed unworthy. Listen to Paul:
2:1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2:2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 2:3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest…2:4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us,
Did you see the juxtaposition of the truth about who we are and the truth about who God is? Verses 2:1-3 is about us and our depravity. Such words—“dead,” “transgressions,” “sins,” “according to the world,” “sons of disobedience,” “cravings of the flesh,” indulging the desires of the flesh,” “by nature children of wrath,”—present our condition before a holy God as seemingly hopeless and irreversible. “But”—and it is the most important “but” in Scripture—verse 4 is about God and his great love. The point is as profound as it is simple: God loves the unlovely! God loves sinners, people who are consistently falling short of his standard of holiness—sinners, who are spiritually dead, and on their own could never do anything to achieve a right standing with their Maker and Judge.
But as we have said throughout this series, we tend to downplay sin in our lives. But God measures our hearts and hands by his Law, the perfect standard of his holiness (James 1:21-25). We may take the ten commandments as the ten suggestions, but they will be our judge today and in the end. A cartoon in the Hong Kong Tattler showed Moses just come down from the top of the mountain with the tablets in hand. He’s reporting to the children of Israel and says, “It was hard bargaining—we get the milk and the honey, but the anti-adultery clause stays in.” Unfortunately, unlike certain tax laws, there are no loopholes in the ten commandments! But such is fallen human nature to be looking intently for them.
This is painful truth, but truth nonetheless. We have a propensity to exchange the ethical truth and righteousness God requires for some substandard of our own making. Under the deluding influence of pride, we step across lines designed for our spiritual and physical health, and protection. We suffer the consequences and generally blame God for allowing us to get into this mess. In truth, if you think disobedience is attractive, just ask anyone whose paying for it now. Make no mistake about it, sin is attractive, but underneath that sparkling bait, is a hook. Bite and….
In order to help the church in her struggle against sin, believers throughout church history—the early church fathers, the Reformers, the Puritans—have been inspired by Scripture to reduce spirituality to two lists known as “the seven deadly sins” and “the seven virtues” of saintliness. The former includes pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. The latter includes wisdom, justice, courage, temperance, faith, love, and hope.
Mahatma Gandhi, though not a Christian, also had a list of “seven deadly sins, stated in the form of contrasts: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, politics without principle.
The truth of the matter is that all have fallen short of God’s glory and all are responsible to him (Romans 3:23). All of us have committed in some fashion—but nonetheless truly committed—some or all of the sins mentioned in the above “list.” “Each of us,” as Isaiah said, “has turned to own way” (Isaiah 53:6).
“During my hitch in the marines back in 1958,” writes Chuck Swindoll, “I was stationed on Okinawa where there was a leprosarium. At that time I was playing in the third division band in the Marine Corps and we were to do a performance on that north part of the island of Okinawa.
I had read about leprosy, but I had never seen a leper and I wasn’t really prepared for what I saw. We went over a bridge or two and got into the interior of this compound. I saw stumps instead of hands, I saw clumps instead of fingers. I saw half faces. I saw one ear instead of two. I saw the dregs of humanity unable even to applaud our performances. I saw in the faces of men, women, and some teenagers an anguish crying out. We could play music for them, but we could not cleanse them of their disease.
In scripture leprosy is a picture of sin. And we see that it is cleansed rather than healed. Only Jesus’ blood has the power to cleanse us of our condition of sinful corruption. Now I understand when the Scripture says, ‘He was moved with compassion.’”23
Indeed, we are all spiritual lepers in God’s sight. And the truth about our wretched condition—while highly unpopular today—is prior to any real life-changing understanding of his love. Each of us knows what it is to hurt someone intentionally, to curse God, to gossip against our neighbor, to lift a brazen arm to the Almighty, to act out of malice toward someone created in God’s image, to use God to our own selfish ends, to hate others, to tread underfoot the blood of Christ by willfully and consistently sinning against him presuming he’ll simply grant forgiveness, to connive plans for your own advancement all the while ignoring the injury caused to colleagues, to demand God come through for you, to allow your wife to go to sleep with a heavy heart, to use grace as a fire escape, to curse the man in traffic, to hold God in contempt, to verbally dismantle your spouse in front of people—and on and on the list goes.
“The true problem lies in the hearts and thoughts of men,” says Albert Einstein. “It is not a physical, but ethical one. What terrifies us is not the explosive force of the atomic bomb, but the power of the wickedness of the human heart.” Einstein was right.
Who understands better the depth of God’s unconditional love? The one who has been forgiven much? Or, the one forgiven little? Well, in truth—and Jesus would agree—the latter category does not really exist. We are all deeply offensive to God’s holiness and an affront to his perfections. We all need unimaginable pardon. We understand his love when we understand that fact! Otherwise, we denigrate his love into some form of soft sentimentalism. But it is a holy love.
It is quite a simple step, then, to move from our sinfulness to God’s love in terms of his grace. For if he is to love us at all—and he most certainly does—it must be a love grounded in his graciousness. He could have demanded that we meet certain expectations and then showered us with everything good his benevolent heart could dream of. But, if this were the case, we should never have known the love of God. For “there is no one righteous, no, not even one” (Rom 3:10). But the love of God is manifested brilliantly in his grace toward undeserving sinners. And that is exactly what grace is: God’s love freely given to the unlovely.
In Pursuit, author and evangelist Luis Palau writes:
Thank God his grace isn’t “fair.” A couple of years ago, one of my nephews (I’ll call him Kenneth) was near death. He had AIDS. During a family reunion in the hills of northern California, Kenneth and I broke away for a short walk. He was a hollow shell, laboring for breath.
“Kenneth, you know you’re going to die any day,” I said. “Do you have eternal life? Your parents agonize. I must know.”
“Luis, I know God has forgiven me and I’m going to heaven.”
For several years, since his early teens, Kenneth had practiced homosexuality. More than that, in rebellion against God and his parents, he flaunted his lifestyle.
“Kenneth, how can you say that?” I replied. “You rebelled against God, you made fun of the Bible, you hurt your family terribly. And now you say you’ve got eternal life, just like that?”
“Luis, when the doctor said that I had AIDS, I realized what a fool I’d been.”
“We know that,” I said bluntly, but deliberately, because Kenneth knew full well that the Bible teaches that homosexual behavior is sin. “But did you really repent?”
“I did repent, and I know that God has had mercy on me. But my dad won’t believe me.”
“You rebelled in his face all your life,” I said. “You’ve broken his heart.”
Kenneth looked me straight in the eye. “I know the Lord has forgiven me.”
“Did you open your heart to Jesus?”
“Yes. Luis! Yes!”
As we put our arms around each other and prayed and talked some more, I became convinced that Jesus had forgiven all of Kenneth’s rebellion and washed away all his sin. Several short months later he went to be the Lord at age twenty-five. Says Palau, “My nephew, like the repentant thief on the cross, did not deserve God’s grace. I don’t either. None of us do. That’s why grace is grace—unmerited favor.”24
Grace is the theme of the New Testament and the key to understanding its message. For the New Testament writers speak of salvation and always connect it to the grace of God. Our salvation from sin and wrath was God’s gracious idea before the beginning of time (2 Tim 1:9) and was brought to fruition in history according to his gracious plan and call (Romans 8:30). We are saved by the grace of God, not by works, (Eph 2:8-9), and the grace of God teaches to live out our salvation before God in an honorable way (Titus 2:11-12). The praise of the glorious grace of God is the final goal of salvation (Eph 1:6).25
And just so that we would understand the extent of God’s grace he gave many examples in the Bible, in particular, the example of the apostle Paul. Isn’t it amazing that God should take one of the greatest legalists of all time and make him the greatest spokesman for his grace? Paul said that God had chosen him so the people might learn in him—a murderer and persecutor of the church—the true meaning of the grace of God:
1:15 This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” and I am the worst of them. 1:16 But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life.
While we were at war with God—enemies as Paul says in Romans 5:10—he was making a way to extend his grace to us. What incredible love.
During WWII a man died and his two friends desperately wanted to give him a decent burial. They found a cemetery in a nearby village. It happened to be a Roman Catholic cemetery and the dead man had been a Protestant. When the two friends found the priest in charge of the burial grounds, they requested permission to bury their friend, but the priest refused because the man had not been a Catholic. When the priest saw their disappointment, he explained that they could bury their friend immediately outside the fence. This was done.
Later, they returned to visit the grave, but couldn’t find it. Their search led them back to the priest and, of course, they asked him what had happened to the grave. The priest told them that during the night he was unable to sleep. He got up and moved the fence to include the dead soldier.
And so it is with God’s love. He has found a way to include us in his love. He has found a way to extend the fence of his love to take in the unlovely. What is more amazing is that he did so without compromising the just demands flowing from his holiness. His love is his grace and his mercy flowing freely toward us. The natural question is, “How?” and, “On what basis?”
The heart of God is filled with love and in its center stands a cross. The cross—the ignoble means by which God has satisfied the just demands of the Law (i.e., his own holiness) and freely embraced us as sinners. The law stipulates that the penalty of sin is death. So Christ paid that penalty in our place. The apostle John says: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Paul says: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Peter also says the same thing: “For Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
Jesus Christ lived a perfect, sinless life (Heb 4:15) and obediently offered himself to God as a ransom for people (Mark 10:45). The full and just demands of the law have been met in him and his death pays the penalty for our sins (Heb 9:28). God’s wrath has been fully satiated and his love flows freely upon this blood-stained ground. God’s love is his mercy and grace abundantly showered on his elect in Christ (Ephesians 1:4).
Therefore, we must trust him and him alone for our salvation and Christian life. As Paul said: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). He died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:15; see also John 14:21-23; 15:10).
When Louis Lawes became the warden of Sing Sing Prison in 1920, the inmates existed in wretched conditions. This led him to introduce humanitarian reforms. He gave much of the credit to his wife, Kathryn, however, who always treated the prisoners as human beings. She would often take her three children and sit with gangsters, the murderers, and the racketeers while they played basketball and baseball.
Then in 1937, Kathryn was killed in a car accident. The next day her body lay in a casket in a house about a quarter of a mile from the institution. When the acting warden found hundreds of prisoners crowded around the main entrance to the prison, he knew what they wanted. Opening the gate, he said, “Men, I’m going to trust you. You can go to the house.” No count was taken; no guards were posted. Yet not one man was missing that night. Love for one who had loved them had made them dependable.
So I too must respond to the love of Christ for me. I cannot continue in my wayward ways and sinful paths. It is his love that draws me to believe and accept what he says about my sinful condition. It is his deep love that sent him to the cross on my behalf, to pay the penalty of my sin. Have I trusted him and him alone for forgiveness? Or, am I still putting that decision off? “Now is the day of salvation,” says Paul. Won’t you trust Christ today? Right now?
Some people say that they have responded to Christ in faith, but in reality they have not. They still believe they are sufficient for life and will take their chances on eternity. In reality they only “toy around” with believing in Christ. They’re like the young woman who was being pursued by a young man truly in love with her. As the two sat together overlooking a beautiful lake, the young man proposed to her: “Darling,” he said, full of affection, “I want you to know that I love you more than anything in the world. I want you to marry me. I’m not wealthy; I’m not rich. I don’t have a yacht or Rolls-Royce like Johnny Brown, but I do love you with all my heart.” She thought for a minute, and then replied, “I love you with all of my heart, too, but tell me more about Johnny Brown.” Jesus calls us to total commitment, that rare kind that does not look to the left or to the right.
Francis Thompson’s early life was one dead end after another. He studied for the priesthood but did not complete his course; he studied medicine and failed; he joined the military and was released after just one day; he finally ended up an opium addict in London. Yet he never did escape the pursuit of God, the hunter and initiator, For God loved him. In the midst of his despondency he was befriended by someone who saw his poetic gifts—and as time went on, Thompson was able to put his experience in verse. The poem is “The Hound of Heaven,” which Coventry Patmore has called one of the finest odes in the English language. Thompson says it for all of us:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I his from Him, and under running laughter
Up vistaed hopes, I sped;
And shot, precipitated
Down titanic glooms of chasmed fears
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
God’s love for us is gracious; he gives all of himself to us where we’re at. God’s love for us is merciful; he pities us in our helpless estate. His cross secures a permanent forgiveness for us. And, as Francis Thompson’s life demonstrates, God’s love for us is persistent; he wrestles with us untiringly.
This lesson is the fourth in a series on knowing God and prayer. “Why” you ask, “have we then spent so much time on God’s holiness, his love, and Jesus’ death on the cross for us?” The answer is simple. If you’re a Christian, you need to grow in your understanding of who your heavenly father is, for prayer is just an expression of your relationship with him. Remember, we said at the outset that prayer is more than just asking for things—it is communion with a holy and loving God who cares deeply about you. Growing in our understanding of God’s nature and attributes can only foster a deeper prayer life in the willing heart. As you pray to the Lord, then, be conscious of the truths of his greatness (no prayer is too big or too small), his holiness (prayer must be offered with a clean heart [Psalm 66:18]) and his love (he enjoys your presence and no prayer goes unheard).
If you are a non-Christian, that is, you have never trusted Christ personally, then that is the first prayer God wants you to make. You can personally confess your sins to Christ and receive him as Lord and Savior. You know now that God loves you and desires that you turn to him in faith and complete trust. He will receive you freely apart from any good works you may or may not have ever done. Just come to him. Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
22 “Even Blindfolded, Mothers Show Touch for Newborns,” Chicago Tribune as quoted in Craig Brian Larson, ed., Contemporary Illustrations for Preachers., Teachers & Writers (Grand Rapids: baker, 1996), 118.