Before I go, I got an email the other day from someone who searched me out on Facebook, not even sure I was the author of He Loves Me. Her effort and her words deeply touched my heart. I am continually amazed at how this little book finds its way in the world even after almost 20 years since its first publication. She wrote:
Monday, I was on the phone to a good friend and he told me his wife was finally reading He Loves Me for the first time. He said she was just being blown away by it. She said the illustration of plucking daisy petals in the first chapter was so on point with the way she was brought up, always believing that her circumstances were the proof of how God felt about her each day. I get it. I had some of that, too.
On Tuesday as I was preparing this blog, someone posted this on an old post on my Facebook page:
I’ve often said, this is the most significant book I’ll ever write because these are still the most important lessons I’ve learned on this journey. Many tell me they had a hard time picking it up for a long time, thinking they already knew about God’s love. When they finally read it, however, they are surprised by what was in those pages and how much it helped them find freedom in his love. There is a huge chasm between understanding the theology of God’s love and actually living loved in the broken Creation.
So, if you haven’t read the book yet or even if you haven’t read it for a while, here’s the first chapter for your reflection:
THE LITTLE GIRL STANDS in the backyard chanting as she plucks petals one by one from the daisy and drops them to the ground. At game’s end, the last petal tells all; whether or not the person desired returns the affection.
Of course, no one takes it seriously, and if children don’t get the answer they desire they take another daisy and start again. It doesn’t take long even for children to realize that flowers weren’t designed to tell romantic fortunes. Why should they link their hearts’ desires to the fickleness of chance?
Why indeed! But it is a lesson far easier learned in romance than in more spiritual pursuits. For long after we’ve put away our daisies, many of us continue to play the game with God. This time we don’t pluck flower petals, but probe through our circumstances trying to figure out exactly how God feels about us.
I got a raise. He loves me!
I didn’t get the promotion I wanted and lost my job altogether. He loves me not!
Something in the Bible inspired me today. He loves me!
My child is seriously ill. He loves me not!
I gave money to someone in need. He loves me!
I let my anger get the best of me. He loves me not!
Something for which I prayed actually happened. He loves me!
I stretched the truth to get myself out of a tight spot. He loves me not!
A friend called me unexpectedly to encourage me. He loves me!
My car needs a new transmission. He loves me not!
A PERILOUS TIGHTROPE
I have played that game most of my life, trying to sort out in any given moment how God might feel about me personally. I grew up learning that he is a God of love, and for the most part I believed it to be true.
In good times, nothing is easier to believe. In days when my family is healthy and our relationships a joy; when my ministry thrives and both income and opportunity increase; when we have plenty of time to enjoy our friends and are not burdened down with need, who wouldn’t be certain of God’s love?
But that certainty erodes when those times of bliss are interrupted with more troublesome events
A childhood condition that provided no end of embarrassment.
The day one of my friends in high school died of a brain tumor even as we prayed earnestly for his healing.
When I wasn’t selected for a job I wanted in college because someone had lied about me.
The night my house was robbed.
When I was severely burned in a kitchen accident.
When I watched my father-in-law and my brother both die with debilitating illnesses even though they sought God earnestly for healing.
When colleagues in ministry lied to me and spread false stories about me to win the support of others.
When I didn’t know from where my next paycheck would come.
When I saw my wife crushed by circumstances that I couldn’t get God to change, no matter how hard I tried.
When doors of opportunity that appeared certain to open would suddenly slam shut like a wind-blown door.
Then I wondered how God really felt about me. I couldn’t understand how a God who loved me would either allow such things into my life or wouldn’t fix them immediately so that I or people I loved wouldn’t have to endure such pain.
He loves me not! Or so I thought on those days. My disappointment at God could easily turn two directions. Often in my pain and frustration, when I felt like I had done enough to deserve better, I would rail at God like the Job of old, accusing him of either being unfair or unloving. In more honest moments, however, I was well aware of the temptations and failures that could exclude me from his care. I would come out of those times committed to trying harder to live the life I thought would merit his love.
I lived for thirty-four years as a believer on this perilous tightrope. Even when there was no crisis hanging over my head, I was always wary of the next one God might drop on me at any second if I couldn’t stay on his good side. In some ways I had become like the schizophrenic child of an abusive father, never certain what God I’d meet on any given day—the one who wanted to scoop me up in his arms with laughter, or the one who would ignore me or punish me for reasons I could never understand.
In the last twenty-five years I have discovered that my earlier methods of discerning God’s love were as flawed as pulling petals from a daisy. I haven’t been the same since.
What about you?
Have you ever felt tossed back and forth by circumstances occasionally certain, but mostly uncertain about how the Creator of the universe feels about you? Or perhaps you’ve never even known how much God loves you.
In a Bible study recently, I met a forty-year-old woman who was active in her fellowship but admitted to a small group of us that she had never been certain that God loved her. She seemed to want to tell me more, but finally only asked me to pray for her.
As I did, asking God to reveal just how much he loved her, an image came to mind. I saw a figure I knew to be Jesus walking through a meadow hand in hand with a little girl about five years old. Somehow I knew this woman was that little girl. I prayed that he would help her discover a childlikeness of spirit that would allow her to skip through the meadows with him.
When I finished praying I looked up at her eyes, brimming with tears.
“Did you say ‘meadow’?” she asked.
I nodded, thinking it odd she had focused on that word.
Immediately she began to cry. When she was able to speak, she said, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell you. When I was five years old I was molested in a meadow by an older boy. Whenever I think about God, I think about that horrible event and I wonder why, if he loved me so much, he didn’t stop that from happening.”
She’s not alone. Many people carry scars and disappointments that can appear to be convincing evidence that the God of love might not exist or, if he does, maintains a safe distance from them and leaves them to the whim of other people’s sins.
I don’t have a stock answer for moments like that, as if any could be effective in the midst of such pain. I told her that evidently God wanted her to know he had been there with her, and although he didn’t act in the only way she could understand true love to act, he loved her nonetheless. He wanted to walk her through that defiled meadow and redeem it in her life.
He wanted to give her a measure of joy in the face of the most traumatic event of her life and turn what had destroyed her ability to trust into a stepping stone toward grace. I know that can sound almost trite in the face of such incredible pain, but the process has begun for her. Eight months later I received an excited email from her telling me in 270-point type, “I get it!”
Does that mean she understands why it happened to her? Of course not. Nothing could explain that. But it does mean that God’s love was big enough to contain that horrible event and walk her out of it. It is my hope these words will encourage that process in you, as well.
PERCEPTION VERSUS REALITY
For truly God has never acted toward us in any way other than with a depth of love that defies human understanding. I know it may not look like that at times. When he seems to callously disregard our most noble prayers, our trust in him can be easily shattered and we wonder if he cares for us. We can even come up with a list of our own failures that can seemingly justify God’s indifference and beckon us into a dark whirlpool of self-loathing.
When we’re playing the he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not game, the evidence against God can appear overwhelming. For reasons we will probe throughout these pages, God does not often do the things we think his love would compel him to do for us. He often seems to stand by with indifference while we suffer. How often does he seem to disappoint our most noble expectations?
But perception is not necessarily reality. If we define God only in our limited interpretation of our own circumstances, we will never discover who he really is.
However, he has provided a far better way. Our daisy-petal approach to Christianity can be swallowed up by the undeniable proof of his love for us on the cross of Calvary. That’s the side of the cross that has all but been ignored in recent decades. We did not see what really happened there between the Father and his Son that opened the door to his love so vast and so certain that it cannot be challenged even by your darkest days.
Through that door we can really know who God is and embrace a relationship with him that the deepest part of our heart has hungered to experience. That is where we’ll begin, because it is only in the context of the relationship God desires with us that we can discover the full glory of his love.
He does love you more deeply than you’ve ever imagined; he has done so throughout your entire life. Once you embrace that truth, your troubles will never again drive you to question God’s affection for you or whether you’ve done enough to merit it. Instead of fearing he has turned his back on you, you will be able to trust his love at the moments you need him most. You will even see in the strangest ways how that love can flow out of you to touch a world starved for it.
Learning to trust him like that is not something any of us can resolve in an instant; it’s something we’ll grow to discover for the whole of our lives. God knows how difficult it is for us to accept his love, and he teaches us with more patience than we’ve ever known. Through every circumstance and in the most surprising ways, he makes his love known to us in ways we can understand.
So perhaps it’s time to toss your daisies aside and discover that it is not the fear of losing God’s love that will keep you on his path, but the simple joy of living in it every day.
On the day you discover that, you will truly begin to live!
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
—1 John 3:1