Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless (Ephesians 5:25-27).
A man is weary of his wife and has an affair with another woman, who makes him feel happier than ever before. When he tells his wife he’s leaving her for his new love, his wife cries, “But what about those wedding promises you made in church? What about the vows we made before God?” At the mention of God, the man replies, “Well, God wants me to be happy, doesn’t he?”
A person goes through hard times: financial problems and the death of a family member. A friend tells her that wherever these problems came from, God has nothing to do with them; God sends only prosperity and happiness. Wherever the difficulties come from, they have nothing to do with God’s plans for her. God would never choose for her to feel pain or hardship. The friend says, “God just wants you to be happy.”
It’s a common assumption that God wants us to be happy. After all, God is love, isn’t he? And if God loves us, he wants us to be happy, right? But what if God loves me so much that he has a higher goal than just my short-term happiness? Many of us have a picture of love–and of God’s love in particular–that is shallow and sloppy. We assume that God is nothing but love, and we assume that love is nothing but niceness. We’d like to think God won’t condemn anything that makes us happy, and we’d also like to think God would never deliberately send any problems and pains into our lives that would make us unhappy. But according to the Bible, God does condemn many things that we might enjoy, and God does send sorrow and suffering. So either God is not very loving, or else his love isn’t the way we often picture it.
Sometimes God’s love is said to be unconditional. In one sense that’s true, but it can also be misunderstood. God’s love is unconditional in the sense that it’s not based on what we do to earn it. When we come to Jesus for salvation, the Lord will forgive any sin, even the worst, and receive us as we are, for the sake of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. But sometimes we talk about “unconditional love” not as a love which can forgive our evil but a love which doesn’t care about our evil, not as a love that receives us as we are but a love that leaves us as we are.
That’s not how God’s love works. God’s love has an agenda, a goal. God may love you in spite of your evil, but he will not approve of your evil or allow it to go unchallenged or unchanged. When God gets hold of you, he changes you. The Lord receives you as you are, but he will not leave you as you are. If Jesus loved you enough to die for you, then he loves you enough to work on you and move you toward his goal for you. The Bible says, “Our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ … gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14).
Love’s goal is that we be pure and eager to do good. And love will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. Jesus left the perfect happiness of heaven and endured the most horrible suffering to bring me back to him. So don’t be shocked if the Lord makes you unhappy at times, if he command some things you don’t enjoy or puts you through experiences that hurt. The love of Jesus is not a sloppy sentiment that says, “I just want for you whatever makes you happy, sweetie pie.” Jesus’ love is fierce and splendid.
In the long run, God does intend to make his people happy–but he intends to make us happy in being holy. So until you are as pure as God wants you to be, until you delight in the things that delight God, God doesn’t necessarily want you to be happy. Holiness comes before happiness on God’s agenda for you.
British author C. S. Lewis has a brilliant chapter in his book The Problem of Pain where he deals with four word pictures of God’s love for us: first, the love of an artist or craftsman for his handiwork; second, the love of a master for a cherished animal; third, the love of a father for a child; and fourth, the love of a husband for a wife. Each of these words’ pictures is found in the Bible, and each helps us understand love’s goal.
The Artist’s Love
Let’s begin with the love of an artist for what he is making. The Bible often pictures God’s relationship to his people as a potter molding clay. God sent the prophet Jeremiah to a potter’s house to watch the artist at work. The potter was fingering and shaping the clay as it spun on the wheel, but the clay somehow became marred and misshapen. And what did the potter do? He simply squeezed the clay back into a lump “and formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.” Then God spoke to Jeremiah and said, “Can I not do with you as this potter does? Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:1-6).
God isn’t content to leave you as a useless, marred lump of mud. If God loves you, he intends to make of you something that is useful, even beautiful. He is constantly shaping and molding you to have a certain character. In this process, God has the absolute right and power to do whatever it takes to make of you whatever he wants. He is the Potter; we are the clay. God doesn’t just want us to be happy for the time being. He wants us to be holy, and he will do whatever it takes to make us that way, even if it means commanding things that are hard to obey and putting us through painful experiences we’d rather avoid.
Imagine you’re a potter, and you’re working on some unusual clay which had the ability to think and talk. You have a certain shape in mind, but the clay thinks it’s good enough the way it is. It doesn’t want to be changed. The clay tells you, “This is the way I am–like it or lump it!” What would you do? You’d lump it! You’d scrunch that clay back into a lump and start over, giving the clay the shape you want it to have.
God is the potter; we are ornery, stubborn clay. We tend to think we should be shaping the Potter instead of the Potter shaping us. God should do what we want. Why should we have to do what he wants? “You turn things upside down,” says the Bible, “as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, “He did not make me? Can the pot say of the potter, ‘He knows nothing'” (Isaiah 29:16). We might think that God didn’t create us, or that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. If our life seems to be taking a shape that we like but then something awful happens and scrunches us into a helpless lump, we may rage at God the Potter. But that may be the Potter’s way of making us into something worthwhile.
Sometimes the shaping process hurts terribly, but let’s not forget that God has the right and the power to shape us in whatever way seems best to him, and let’s also not forget the love and concern that an artist has for what he is making. The more the artist cares about a certain work of art, the more time and trouble he takes with it. The more he prizes it, the less he puts up with any defect. The greater the masterpiece he’s working on, the more careful and intense he will be. If he wanted only a worthless lump of mud, he won’t bother the clay at all. If he wanted only a crude bowl, the shaping process would be quick and easy. But since he wants a splendid vase, he keeps prodding and shaping until it’s exactly the way he wants it and then puts the clay through intense heat and fire. So it is with God. Often those who suffer most, who go through the most painful shaping and pass through the most fiery trials, are most precious to God and end up among his most splendid and valued masterpieces.
Cheap stuff takes little time or trouble. Perfect beauty is quite another matter. The Bible says to God’s people, “You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God” (Isaiah 62:3). Now, which is easier to make, a crown or a paper hat? If God intended you only to be a worthless paper hat, your life might be simple and painless. But if he intends you to become a splendid crown for himself, then the gold and silver for the crown must be refined in fire. Impurities must be burned away. The diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and other jewels for the crown must be chiseled and polished. All that burning and chiseling and polishing may hurt, but is that a sign that God the great Artist doesn’t care about you? No, it means he prizes you enormously and is making of you something greater and more valuable than you ever dreamed. There may be times you wish God would make life easier for you and shape you into something less royal, but then your complaint isn’t that God loves you too little but that he loves you too much.
The Lord is the craftsman and “we are his workmanship,” says the Bible, “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). God’s love isn’t earned by our good deeds, but his love does shape us to be good and to do good. His love has even set up opportunities ahead of time for us to do good. The picture of God as artist and we as his workmanship clearly shows God’s love is love with a goal.
The Master’s Love
A second picture of God’s love is the love of a master for an animal. The Bible often speaks of the Lord as the good shepherd and his people as sheep. Jesus loves his sheep, he defends his sheep against enemies, and he even lays down his life and dies to save his sheep. But in his love for the sheep, the good shepherd insists on leading them and guiding them in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. He’s not content to let the sheep do whatever they want or wander in whatever direction they please. They must learn to do what the shepherd wants.
I’ve never raised sheep, but I come from a family that raises purebred Hereford cattle. Sometimes we do things with an outstanding young bull that he doesn’t like very much. We put a rope halter on the youngster’s head and tie him to a fence post. He gets mad and tosses his head and jerks back. If he’s really upset, he may brace his feet and pull against the halter until his nose is swollen and he’s too tired to pull any longer. Eventually he relaxes. But just when he no longer minds being tied to a fence post, someone comes along and starts trying to lead him around. At first the young bull may be stubborn and refuse to move. We may need to tug hard on the halter or twist his tail or give him a whack across the back end to convince him to move. After awhile the animal is halter-broke, and he may even enjoy being handled, especially if he gets his back scratched. But then the poor critter suffers another horror. He gets a shampoo and a rinse and a haircut. What a bother!
Now, are the young animals who suffer this training process the ones we don’t care about? No, they’re the ones we prize most!
If you look at it from the animal’s point of view, it might seem less bother just to be an ordinary calf in a ordinary herd, not a prize animal in a purebred herd. But look at the big picture. While those ordinary calves are heading for a slaughterhouse, the prize purebred is heading for a national show and for a long life in the pasture where he produces many offspring and is fed and cared for and valued.
If you live in the city or suburbs, you probably don’t have livestock, but perhaps you have a dog. When you first get a puppy in the house, does your love for your pet mean you let it do whatever comes naturally? Of course not! You may take in a puppy that is dirty and smelly and untrained, but you don’t leave it that way! You house-train it, give it baths, and do whatever else is necessary to make it suitable for human company.
If a puppy could think like some philosophers, it might figure that the house-training, baths, and obedience school are so unpleasant that its owner is not good or loving. But a full-grown, well-trained dog (if it could think and speak) would have no such doubts, for it would see that it is healthier and lives longer than any wild dog and enjoys comforts and kindnesses and human company far beyond its animal destiny.
When we go through God’s training, we might wonder why he is being so mean to us. We might question whether he is really good or loving at all. But when we grow up into creatures fit for heaven and live with God and his angels forever, enjoying wonders far beyond a merely human destiny, we will see that it was love, not cruelty, that led our divine Master to wash us and train us.
When a master goes to the bother of training a dog, it’s because he values the dog. “He does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes,” says C. S. Lewis. “We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses–that he would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves; but once again, we are asking not for more Love, but for less.”
Holiness is not optional for Christians; obedience isn’t something we can either take or leave. One way or another, Jesus will transform and purify us, much as we might train an animal. In the Bible, God says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go… Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you” (Psalm 32:8-9). My divine Master, Jesus Christ, insists on directing my life, and he’s going to do it one way or the other. When I stop being a stubborn mule who does his master’s will only in response to force, when I start to obey God willingly, then I can be truly happy with my master.
The Father’s Love
A third biblical picture of God’s love is the love of a father for his child. This picture of love is warmer and more personal than the love of an artist for his masterpiece or the love of master for his animal. But though fatherly love is personal and intimate, it is still love that has a goal.
What truly loving father would say, “I love my son, so I don’t care how lazy or worthless or rotten or nasty he turns out to be, as long as he’s happy”? That would be a sick, twisted kind of love–if you could call it love at all. A truly loving father wants his children to grow up into good people who amount to something. The more he loves them, the more he cares what kind of people they become. He uses his fatherly authority to shape his children’s character, and he expects them to obey.
God is a father, not a grandfather. Many grandpas tend to spoil the grandkids and give them whatever they want. If it was up to grandpa, the grandkids would never walk through a store without buying something they want. If it were up to grandpa, the grandkids would live on a diet of candy and ice cream. Now, it’s great to have fun with grandpa once in awhile, but a child needs more than a soft-hearted grandpa. He needs a father who can be tough when necessary. A good dad is kind and affectionate, but he is also in charge. He insists on being obeyed, not just for the sake of his own ego, but for the good of his children. He applies discipline and punishment, not because he enjoys causing pain but to shape his children’s character. We might wish God were a grandpa whose only agenda was to make us happy. But God is our Father, not our grandfather. He won’t spoil us rotten.
The Bible says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:11-12). “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?… God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:-11).
Clearly, our heavenly Father has a goal for us, just as human fathers have goals for their children. Unfortunately, some human fathers have goals that don’t really fit their children. Earthly fathers don’t fully understand their children and sometimes try to make them into something they were never meant to be. But that’s not the case with our heavenly Father. He understands us perfectly, and his goal for us is truly what’s best for us. Any unpleasant experience he puts us through will be worth it when we become holy as our heavenly Father is holy.
A Husband’s Love
A fourth biblical picture of God’s love is the love a husband has for his bride. This may be the most tender and passionate picture of God’s love in all the Bible. Isaiah the prophet says, “For your Maker is your husband–the Lord Almighty is his name” (Isaiah 54:5). “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5).
This is a stunning picture of God’s love, and it shows once again that God’s love is not a sloppy, tolerant kind of love which doesn’t really care what we’re like. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not then first begin to care? Does any woman regard it as a sign of love in a man that he neither knows nor cares how she is looking? Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved.”
In Ephesians 5 the Bible compares Jesus’ love for his church to the love of a husband for his wife and says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her … to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Jesus loved his bride enough to die for her, and because he loves her so much, he wants her to be her absolute, spotless best.
Here we run up against the limits of what any one word picture can show us about God’s love. Jesus is the bridegroom who loves the bride. He’s also the father who presents the bride to himself. He’s even the dressmaker and beautician who makes his bride breathtakingly beautiful, completely flawless. Jesus is so much more than any word or comparison can express, but the point is that he loves his church passionately and is making his people into something more lovely than we could ever have imagined.
How should we respond to such love? With all the joy and excitement of a bride getting ready for her wedding! As the Bible puts it, “‘Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints)” (Revelation 19:7-8).
The love of God is not vague or general; it is definite and personal. God’s love is not helpless or harmless; it is powerful and sometimes painful. God’s love is not aimless; it is love with a goal. It is holy love which will do whatever it takes to make us holy. That’s frightening, isn’t it? God isn’t an easy-going, absent-minded grandpa who just wants you to have a good time. He’s not a mild-mannered bureaucrat who hands you a welfare check but doesn’t really care what you do or what you make of your life. He’s not a hotel operator whose main job is to please the customer and make you comfortable. We may wish sometimes that God were like that, but he’s not. God’s holy love is as persistent and perfectionistic as an artist making a masterpiece, as absolute and dictatorial as a master training an animal, as watchful and disciplinary as a father’s love for his children, as passionate and jealous as a man’s love for his bride.
That is almost too much for us to bear. Why should the infinite, eternal God, the almighty Creator of the entire universe, take such a personal interest in creatures who are so small and so sinful? Why should he love us so much or value us so highly? Why should he want to make of us something so much better and greater than we presently are? It’s a love we can’t explain, a love we don’t deserve, a love we don’t even desire, apart from his grace. We’d rather have God spoil us than love us.
But when God’s love breaks into your life and you come to know Jesus as your Savior, this is the love with which you are loved–no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. This is the holy love of God for his chosen ones, a love springing from the depths of eternity, a love displayed in the death of Jesus Christ, a love which has paid the ultimate price to have us, a love which will do whatever it takes to transform and purify us so that we are “radiant… without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” That is love’s goal.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.