Note: I would like to thank Wayne Jacobsen for his insight into Abba’s love and many of the concepts presented here. Check out Wayne at LifeStream Ministries. Also, this is a long blog – over 2,500 words to be exact.
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Question: when you first heard about Jesus was the message more about not going to Hell than about how much He loved you?
Thanks be to God, my answer is the latter. I am grateful to Tony Campolo, who presented Jesus in such a way that it was 80 percent about His love, 15 percent about His Lordship and serving the poor and a measly 5 percent mention of Hell. So, I was a fortunate one who came to first know and love Jesus through a message of love, hope and forgiveness. Thanks Tony!
What about anybody else? I know way too many people who have given their life to Jesus more out of fear (of going to hell) than out of being blown away by God’s crazy love for them and the extent to which God went to open the gates of heaven.
Those who present Jesus as Savior in order to not go to hell are merely preaching “fire insurance” and not “making disciples.” Preaching Hell points more “to our weaknesses and fears than to God’s intentions” (Wayne Jacobsen). Focusing more on hell is a not what Jesus did; He presented parable after parable focusing more on love than hell. Yes, He did speak of hell but love and mercy were the core of His message and the core of His presentation of Abba’s love for us.
When Jesus is presented out of fear, we corrupt God’s true intention established from the foundation of the world: a desire for unbroken and unbridled intimacy based on love and trust, not fear (Wayne again).
Now I am not saying there is no hell, but that is not my focus here, I will leave that to the hundreds of fundamentalist out there to preach hate and fear over love and mercy. Jesus said that he did not come into the world to judge for the world was already judged and this due to sin (See John 3). But true love – God’s true love – always gives us choices, for divine love does not manipulate or coerce (like so many pastors and religious folks I see and hear today). No, true love gives us choices and some choices do indeed have painful consequences both here and in the hereafter. But other choices have pleasant benefits, both here and in the hereafter.
So do we love God out of fear or love?
Do we love God out of a fear of hell and punishment and inconsistent love? Or do we love God out of gratitude and desire for His infinite Love? Yes, I can hear it now, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but the word for fear there has to do with reverence and awe. It is not fear like an abused child fears getting the crap smacked out of him by his drunken father.
We already have an image of God that is completely opposite of the above mentioned father: that image was presented by Jesus, first and foremost in the name He told us to call God, Abba. In Aramaic (the spoken language of Jesus) literally means “Papa.” And Jesus continually shows us just Who this ‘Papa’ is – extravagant in love, abundant in mercy, full of compassion, quick to forgive and heal, slow to anger. And when Jesus reveals what makes Abba angry, it was always at those who would block God’s mercy and love, shackling it to age-old, man-made laws and not to Abba’s original intent.
Never once did Jesus approach people with “turn or burn” – quite the opposite. Jesus approached people with the message “the Kingdom of God has come near you” and the life He was inviting us to was not a religious life of “do’s” and “don’ts,” it was an invitation to real life in the Kingdom, a life of being loved by Abba and in loving Abba freely…real like Velveteen Rabbit real!
So do we love God out of fear or love?
One thing I have noticed about modern-day Christianity: it is focused more on us than on God. And what I mean is when we talk about God, it is usually in the context of “my” relationship with God; what am “I” doing for God; how am “I” responding to God; do “I” have a relationship with God. We’ve got it all backwards – the focus should be on God. Jeez…we could not even desire a relationship with God if God did not first put that desire within us. It is called prevenient grace, namely that even the very hunger for God within us was caused first by God.
So, it could revolutionize our faith if we truly started understanding that it is not we who desire intimacy with God; it is Abba Who desires intimacy with us first. We are the responders, not the initiators. We are the ones being pursued by Abba’s tender love and mercy. We are the receivers before we are the givers. And that my friends is what grace is all about: our free-willed response to a God Who hungers and pines for us; a God Who went to lengths we can barely fathom to draw us back to Himself!
So do we love God out of fear or love?
Be honest. Do we love God out of fear or out of love? For if we love God out of fear, then it is not love for “perfect love cast out fear.” If we love God out of fear, that is bondage. If we love God out of a response to His great love – out of our deep and personal experience of this Divine Love – then we find true freedom. Jesus said you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. What is more freeing than to live in the constant, ever-faithful love of a Father to whom none can compare?
I understand that the use of the word ‘Father’ for some is a huge stumbling block and barrier to receiving God’s love. For some, like me, were beaten, abused, neglected and abandoned by our fathers. So why in the heck would I want an Almighty Father like that? Who in their right mind would ever submit to a Divine Tyrant? I wouldn’t.
My father was a good man…when he was sober. But drunk he would be mean, distant, cold and aloof. I have many memories of riding in the car with my dad, drunk as a skunk, begging him to please slow down or pull over, while he swerved all over the road. I feared death would come literally around the next corner.
My dad was also famous for taking me, his 10 year old son, to the movies, buying the tickets and telling me to go in and “find us some good seats.” Only he would go back out to his car and either drink himself into a sleeping stupor or even worse, he would leave, go to the nearest liquor store, and drink himself to sleep there, and I would end up having to walk home. One time, I remember going to see “Grease” and dad never showed up and I ended up starting to walk home along Interstate 81 (in Roanoke, VA), but God was looking out for me then, when my neighbor saw me and picked up and gave me a ride home. I also remember her giving my dad a good tongue-lashing for abandoning his son like that.
So, trust me when I say calling God “Father” has, in and of itself, been a healing journey for this 44 year old man. And right now, I ‘know’ that it is Abba Who is tugging at me to undertake the healing of Father because some of the old junk is rising to the surface; and you know what they about poop…it floats. So, Abba wants to go deeper, reveal more of Himself to me, the Real Abba, as He is, not as my wounds tell me He is. And I am excited by what He will reveal even as I am resistant and hesitant.
So do we love God out of fear or love?
As someone who has worked in public health campaigns around HIV prevention and substance abuse, I have learned one thing that relates to our walk with God: fear is a short-term behavior modifier. In the short run, we can use fear to ‘modify’ our behaviors, like when we are under duress and pray those prayers, “God, just get me out of this and I promise I’ll go to some far off country as a missionary, or some other promise made in fear.
The same is true of God with regard to fear; if we only ‘fear’ God we will never know the freeing power of His love and never know how that should be our motivation. Fear motivates in the short-term, but only love – Abba’s true eternal love – can transform us (and our behaviors) leading us away from sinfulness into deeper holiness and wholeness.
I said it previously that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” but it is only the beginning, not the end (Thanks to Wayne again). The end of wisdom is love. True wisdom lies in knowing God’s love for us is immutable (unchanging) and that truth – God’s passionate love for you and me – is what transforms and leads to obedience. For obedience can indeed occur without love, but when we love, we desire obedience, out of love, not fear. So are we obeying God out of fear or love?
God’s love is not like our love for we are motivated mostly out of selfishness (even in our best intentions), but God is motivated out of selflessness. When Jesus died on the cross it was out of love and selflessness. Far too often, when we speak about the cross, we speak of it terms of God’s justice (or God’s demands for justice). But the cross was more an act of Love than an act of justice!
And when we look to the cross and see just how deep Abba’s love is for us, it should make our fear disappear. For in God’s love, our fear is swallowed up. For “[there] is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because [God] first loved us. And “…perfect love [God’s perfect love] cast out fear.”
As Wayne Jacobsen challenges in his grand work, He Love Me, I suggest spending some time prayerfully reading 1 John 4:7-21. Let me ‘selectively’ pull out some of the verses from 1 John so we can see them together to try and create a more powerful impact of Abba’s love:
Dear friends…love comes from God. This is how God showed his love among us… This is love: not that we loved God, but that [God] loved us…Dear friends, since God so loved us…. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because [God] first loved us.
In 1 John 4:7-21, the word “love” is used 27 times! 27 times in 14 verses! Do you think John the Beloved was trying to make a point of something…say maybe God’s Love?!? John just keeps stating over and over again about God’s love for us and in us and what happens when God’s love ‘takes over.’
So, what I gather John is saying (as he is simply reflecting what Jesus said), we are merely responding to God’s love. As I stated previously, we can’t even love God unless God had first loved us. And just how much did/does God love us? Just look at the cross! The cross is the greatest sign of God’s love for us, in that God did not spare anything (or Anyone) to show us just how much He loves us. God’s spared absolutely no expense to open the door for us to be loved by Him and for His love to flow freely and limitlessly into, and out of, our hearts and lives.
I am astounded at how I can read 1 John 4 and St. John’s entire Gospel and yet I still don’t “get” it. I still have a hard time believing in Father’s deep and abiding love.
I still wonder. I am still so human that I doubt regularly that Abba loves me so much and that Abba loves you all so much; and everyone. I am as thick as a board sometimes. But Abba…well, Abba is patient, kind, and understanding. He knows I am but a speck of dust in the Universe (a lovable speck of dust according to Him). Abba knows what each of us need to grow in trust and in His love. Abba knows the dark spaces that block His love – the wounds, the doubts, the legalism, the fear of the freedom that comes with such unconditional Love. Abba knows.
I have been a follower of Jesus for over 25 years and I sense I am starting all over again; a little child taking his first steps, ever hesitant and pondering if my ‘Daddy’ will be there to catch me when I undoubtedly stumble and fall.
But Abba knows what I need healed regarding my hearts’ timidity in believing and receiving His love. Abba knows I struggle daily to live in quiet trust of His love regardless of the external circumstances. It can be easy to receive Abba’s love when the paychecks are coming in regularly, and the housing is secure and there are no life threatening illnesses. But I am not in that place. I have none of those things right now (and in truth my life could change drastically for the worse over the next few months barring a miracle) and yet, Abba has put in my heart a desire to learn from Him, to have Him teach me that even in the darkest of moments, the epiphany of His divine love can break through, freeing me internally even as my external world is tethered to the consequences of my sinful nature, and to the nagging old theology I still live by (the “He-loves-me-He-loves-me-not” theology as Wayne Jacobsen so aptly says).
Abba knows I am prone to run from Him at precisely the moment I should be nestling with Him, resting in His ever-faithful eternal love. And still Abba persists, His relentless tenderness and love always there, closer to me than even my own breath.
So, do we ‘love’ Abba out of fear? Or do we love Abba because He first loved us from the foundation of the world?