John 3:16: by far the most famous passage of scripture in the Bible. It was the first one I memorized simply because I heard so many sermons quoting it. Up until a few years ago, there were those infamous banners that seemed to show up in the end zone of every NFL football game. This scripture contains in a nutshell the entire Gospel message and it reveals the heart of God toward us. Read it again: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." --John 3:16
However I think I became overexposed to this verse that I failed to get what it is saying. As I have reflected on how I viewed God's attitude toward me, I did not picture him as looking upon me in a way that reflected the meaning of this passage. In some ways I heard this verse as saying something like this: "For God was so exasperated with the world because we messed things up so much that he sent his Son as a last ditch effort to tell us that we were failing, that we needed to try harder and if we do we get to have eternal life in Heaven some day."
And then if you read on to the next verse I heard that one differently also. It actually reads "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." But I heard something like, "For God sent his Son into the world to condemn the world so that we might change our ways and find salvation."
Now let me quite clear: I did not grow up in a legalistic or controlling church or family. In fact, my experience in both was quite loving and accepting. I was never forced to conform nor was I abused in any way as you might hear in some circles. Our problem was our theology. We knew that salvation is a free gift, one that we could do nothing to deserve or earn. But lacked a theology grounded in "God is love." It seemed to me that we talked a lot about grace but not a lot about God's loving stance toward the world. The unstated message that came across was salvation by grace was something that God offered because there was not another option, not because God offered salvation out of love and a desire to share life with us. It was more like a pity rescue mission that had to be done.
Of course no one taught this overtly. Instead I caught this message from the things that were prioritized in the church. It was a subtle message, one that could be described in this way: God loves most those who attend church the most, volunteer the most and give at least 10% of their income. This seemed to be revealed by the fact that these were the people that got the attention of the leadership. These were the people who acted right and lined up according to the plans of those in charge.
When I was a senior in high school, one of my friends was spotlighted at a big conference (along with 3-4 others) for being a faithful Christian youth. The subtle message to the thousands attending the event was that we were supposed to act like her. And on the surface this might look like a good message. After all, my friend was very faithful in her walk with Christ. However the emphasis at this conference was on how we could line up, get our lives right and be the right kind of persons. The subliminal message was: God loves my friend more than the rest of us. And if I want to be loved like her I need to act like her.
This is a very subtle form of condemnation. Instead of hearing a message about the God who loves us right where we are and actually pays attention to those who don't act right as much as those who do, we were fed messages about how we could change our lives so that we might measure up.
In preparation for this series, I have realized how I have grown up hearing the words about God's love, or even over the last few years hearing Greg talk about "God looks like Jesus on the cross." I know these facts but there have been other things blocking this reality from sinking into my heart. As a Jim Lepage wrote on The Bridge, "Rather than seeing God as someone waiting to punish me, it can be more like he's just not all that excited about me. He likes me, but he doesn't love me. I guess that is the sort of lie that has somehow subtly affected my picture of God and is something I hope this series will help me re-frame and replace with God's true thoughts about me."
As Greg said toward the end of his sermon this last weekend, “God loves us all right where we are no matter how messed up we are. And if we submit to God, God does not love us any more. We simply get to partake of that love all the more.
Take some time right now to voice a prayer to God about what you would like to see God do through this series.
What are some things, perspectives, or experiences that hinder your ability to envision a God of love and experience that love right now. Are you willing to share those with others? Maybe here on The Bridge. You don’t have to reveal the dark secrets, but we would love to hear what you have to say.