Some people think that God’s love is a green light to do and be whatever they deeply feel they should do and be. Yet is that what God’s love is according to the Bible? Although people often want God to love them by affirming and even ignoring their decisions, the love of God in the Bible is highly invested in how we turn out.
A 5-year-old goes to his father and says, “Daddy, I love you. But I think it’s time I left the house and join the circus. It looks fun. I like animals. I like cotton candy. So, I have my backpack full of gummy worms, my favorite Paw Patrol t-shirt, my blankie, a stuffed bear, and my piggy bank with lots of nickels. Thanks for all you’ve done for me. I know I’m supposed to go to Kindergarten, but the carnie I talked to said the train was leaving town this afternoon. Bye!”
This scenario will most likely end one of two ways.
The father will look up away from his TV show or put down his phone and say, “Don’t be silly! You’re not going anywhere. Now unpack that bag and wash your hands for supper.” The kid begs, cries, pleads, bargains, and throws a fit.
But his father explains, “Listen, you’re not old enough to go off on your own. Your mom and I love you and believe we know what’s best for you.”
But the boy stomps off to his room screaming at the top of his lungs, “You say you love me, but you don’t! If you really loved me, you’d let me go play with the lions and shovel sawdust and get a tattoo!”
The father will place his hands on the boy’s shoulders and say, “Fine. See ya, kid. Here’s $20 in case you get hungry.” The boy goes out the door, but the dad secretly follows. The boy makes it as far down the street as his mother has ever allowed him to go, but doesn’t know what else to do except start to get homesick and decide to head home. The kid turns around, sees his dad standing there, runs into his arms, and together they go home and wash up for supper.
What God’s Love Is, What God’s Love Isn’t
In both scenarios, the dad was showing love for his child. Just differing strategies with the same outcome. The kid knows the love of his father either way: by the dad saying no immediately, or after realizing his mistake and turning around, by seeing his dad there ready to take him back.
One dad is laying down the law, and the other dad is taking a risk and calling the kid’s bluff. Either way, in both cases, love does not, in the end, affirm the immature wishes of the 5-year-old.
God’s love is not affirming “the immature wishes of the 5-year-old.”
Here’s what love would not be: It would not be love for the dad to say, “Sure, kid. Whatever you want. Hop in the car and let’s go down to the Big Top and I’ll drop you off.” That might be exactly what the kid wants. And if that’s not what the dad does, the kid might throw a fit. But a 5-year-old has no idea what he’s doing, how to take care of himself, or what’s going to happen to him once he gets on that train.
Even in our broken and fragmented society, we know the kid who wants to join the circus needs help and the dad who lets it happen needs to be stripped of his parental rights and thrown in jail. No right-thinking person would come alongside that little kid and say, “Follow your heart, son. You deserve this shot at adventure, fame, and fun! Go for it!”
Responding to God Like a 5-Year-Old
But if we’re honest, depending on our understanding of who God is, and to what extent we’ve responded to him, we can totally be that 5-year-old. We can really want something that we shouldn’t get and then get angry when we don’t get it. As adults, we may be too sophisticated to throw a 5-year-old temper tantrum. But given the wrong set of circumstances and given any confusion on our part as to how our relationship with our heavenly Father works, there is a very good possibility that we will go full bore into wanting something that doesn’t exist: wanting God to love us by affirming and ignoring our decisions. In his book Mirage, Daniel McCoy describes this desire of wanting God to love us by affirming our decisions as one of the five “mirages” we want from God that don’t exist—because they’re contradictions.
God’s love is not “affirming and ignoring our decisions.”
We know in our gut that this isn’t how real love works in the real world:
- If we parented our children in the same way we want God to deal with us sometimes, we would not be very good parents.
- If doctors affirmed every health decision their patients made regardless of outcome, they would not be faithful to the oath they took.
- If teachers or professors stopped correcting students’ wrong answers, or just affirmed any answer as long as it was sincere, they would fail to educate the student. Sincerity has nothing to do with whether someone is wise or foolish, right or wrong. I can sincerely believe that Topeka is the capital of Missouri, but I’d be sincerely wrong.
God’s love is not “affirming any answer as long as it is sincere.”
People make plans and decisions, sometimes out of the most sincere and genuine motives—sometimes even as a result of much prayer and seeking—and still be wrong. Sincerely wrong. And all of us in those circumstances need to be open to God’s hand (and heart) of correction.
So as adults in the room, it’s true most of us would agree that letting a kid do whatever they want whenever they want isn’t love. So why do we have such a difficult time when God doesn’t affirm or conveniently ignore our decisions, wants, and desires?
Growing Up in How We See Love
Have you ever had a job interview? Here are some typical questions:
- How do you deal with authority?
- How do you react when someone criticizes you?
- When someone questions your motives, how do you react?
- How teachable are you?
Some of you already know where I’m going with this.
I think I’m going to start asking people these questions before I baptize them. Seriously.
In my experience in the American church, we largely preach a gospel of forgiveness and eternal life, but shy away from pursuing transformation, from submitting to Jesus’ Kingdom authority, from laying our lives down.
Do you actively seek God’s direction, instruction, and guidance? And are you willing to receive it and adjust life as needed in order to answer his words?
It depends on who you think God is.
If God just forgives sin and leaves you alone, you won’t expect him to tell you what to do. But if he is your king, you’ll be interested in knowing what he wants and following his mission and purpose for your life.
God’s love is not just “forgiving sin and leaving you alone.”
When we decide to do something/anything, and God…
- Questions our motives
- Warns us of the consequences of said decision
- Or makes us feel guilty for actually going through with it
…we can be tempted to feel unloved by God—when, in reality, the opposite is true.
What God Are We Following?
An underlying issue behind this misconception of love is our assumption of who God is to us relationally. It hinges on how we respond to God’s level of desired involvement and authority.
- If God is an angry, ambivalent, or absent Father, we could totally assume that God would be totally cool with us running off to the circus.
- If God is an interested, involved, and intimate Father toward us, his love will sometimes appear to be in the way of our wishes. He will frustrate our plans. He will redirect our ways.
And it’s our choice whether or not we will chase a god of our own making who will affirm or conveniently ignore our decisions, or come near and submit to a more accurate description of our heavenly Father as described in the Scriptures.
God’s Love Is Invested in Our Outcome
The Hebrew word for discipline/correction/chastening is pronounced moo-sawr. It happens 50 times in the OT. In Jeremiah, each time the word appears, it’s describing how God’s people would not receive moo-sawr from the LORD. They would not allow themselves to be corrected. The same word in Isaiah 53:5 describes the chastening (“punishment” in the NIV) that was laid upon ‘him’ brought us peace. The word occurs 30 times in Proverbs, linking accepting discipline with how we grow in wisdom.
God is a Father who loves enough to correct, reproof, warn, rebuke, train, chasten, discipline, admonish, instruct. The fact that there are so many words to describe this process says something about how nuanced, complex, and important it is.
God’s love fuels his correction, reproof, warnings, rebukes, training, etc.
It’s interesting what Scripture says about itself. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says,
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.”
Is that why you read Scripture? Or is that why some of us avoid Scripture? As Mark Twain once wrote, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do understand.”
Hebrews 4:12–13 says,
“The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
The picture is of someone on their knees, head back, throat exposed.
You can try to block the light of God’s Word from entering and exposing your life, or you can submit to it. Submitting to this process is how we grow up and mature into more of the image of Christ. We humble ourselves and stop expecting God to just rubber stamp every whim, wish, or idea.
Our Prayers Reveal What We Think God’s Love Is
Our prayers tell us a lot about what we really want from God. They reveal how willing we are to respond to his commands, encouragement, and calling.
- Being thankful to God in prayer is a good thing, but if that’s all we do, there’s no action to take.
- Praying for others in their suffering is a good thing to do, but it also doesn’t require much from us.
- Asking God to “be with us” is understandable, but not necessary. He already said he would be. Let’s ask for something harder.
For example, a prayer of repentance moves the heart of God to act, and it forms our actions too. Praying for someone’s eternal soul to be saved compels us to act on their behalf. Asking God to help us obey him in the difficult things means we are growing.
God’s love is something that grows us.
Francis Chan imagines a scenario of asking his daughter to clean her room. In response to his request, she writes down what he said. She memorizes his request. Writes a song about it. Paints a picture of what the room would look like clean. Has some friends over and talks about different methods, tools, and time frames to clean rooms. She schedules a clean day where others can come help—even though no one shows up. When it still goes undone, she reasons, bargains on a timeframe, and even ignores him for a long time. All the while, all he wanted was obedience.
God’s Love Is Better
We were trying to help our son make it through a class he hated and was failing. We had been going around and around with arguments and tension. We knew he was capable of so much better, but he wasn’t there. I began to realize that “putting the hammer down” wasn’t going to produce the results either of us wanted.
I decided to appeal to relationship. It took both of us off guard actually. I just looked at him and said, “Do you trust me?”
He stopped. His face relaxed a little.
I repeated, “Do you trust me?”
I repeated, “Do you trust me?”
He hesitated, “Yes. Of course.”
“Then follow our lead on this. Make the plan. Do all you can to catch up, and finish this with effort you’ll feel good about when you look back on this.”
He breathed a little, his shoulders came down, and he said, “Okay.”
Our love for him led us to confront behavior in him that he knew wasn’t what he wanted for himself. You see, it wasn’t about the grade in the class. It was about his integrity, his standards for himself, and us working alongside him to accomplish something that needed done.
His humility and repentance right then kept him from having regret later on. But if we had just left him without guidance, without training, without confronting him, he might not have just failed the class, he might also have been a disappointment to himself later on.
As McCoy writes in Mirage,
“We want God to love us by never questioning our motives. By never giving us uncomfortable warnings. By never making us feel guilty for what we’ve done. But love cannot be indifferent to our outcome! It’s impossible for love not to care how we turn out. If God loves you, then, by definition, he cannot affirm what hurts you, and—by definition—he cannot be indifferent to how you turn out.”
“If God loves you, then, by definition, He cannot affirm what hurts you.”
Let’s stop being frustrated and surprised when God doesn’t let you run off and join the circus. Trust him—ask him questions—and be ready to listen, learn, and soak in his never-failing love for you.
 Daniel McCoy, Mirage: 5 Things People Want from God That Don’t Exist (Renew.org, 2021), 30.