If you grew up attending Sunday School, or even the occasional summer Vacation Bible School program, you learned “Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so” (wr. by Anna B. Warner). The Bible tells us that Jesus loves us, but do we act like we truly believe this? Do we follow the apostle John’s instructions to “Consider the kind of extravagant love the Father has lavished on us—He calls us children of God! It’s true; we are His beloved children” (1 John 3:1 VOI).
Do we rest in this love He lavishes on us, or do we continue struggling to try and earn His love? What may be even more difficult for us, is do we truly believe that He loves others in the world who are not yet followers of Jesus? The apostle John also wrote, in probably the most often quoted verse in the Bible, “God so loved the world.” This says He loved ---not just the chosen few, or those that love Him back --- but everyone in the world. Is this true? Does God really love all of us?
Henri Nouwen had a Jewish friend who asked him to write a book addressing spirituality to those who were not believers in Jesus. Nouwen considered this request, and wrote Life of the Beloved, in which he sought ”to respond to the great spiritual hunger and thirst that exist in countless people who walk the streets of big cities...to speak a word of hope to people who no longer came to churches or synagogues and for whom priests and rabbis were no longer the obvious counselors” (21). These people that Nouwen describes are the very people we need to reach with the gospel, but how can we reach those who are already turned off to all things related to Jesus and his church? How can we respond to them in a positive manner in their current spiritual state ?
Nouwen chose to do this by encouraging his readers to embrace the name “Beloved,” because they are indeed loved by God. Nouwen wrote, “We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved’” (36).
When I first read this, it struck me as a bit odd. Are the enemies of God and those who are indifferent to Him really “beloved” by Him? As I was considering this question, I recalled the story that Jesus told in Luke 15 about the Prodigal Son, a story that is likely very familiar to you.
In this story, while the younger son was still living in the pigpen, in a foreign land, far away from the Father, did the Father still love him? Of course he did! The son was off doing his own thing, living in disobedience, but the Father still loved his disobedient son. He still stood watch every day, watching and waiting for the boy to repent and come home.
The Father didn’t suddenly start loving his son once the boy could be seen walking on the road toward home, or once he was cleaned up and clothed in a new robe. The boy was his son, and he loved him from the moment of his birth. The Father never stopped loving the boy, even when the boy demanded his inheritance early and wished the Father dead. Even when the boy was living for himself in a distant land. Even when he was covered in mud, and muck, and pig slop, and whatever other disgusting substance was in that pigpen.
If the Father had an opportunity to speak to the boy while he was still in the pigpen, he might have said, “I will save you. I have traded in nations to win you back, Egypt, Cush, and Seba, in exchange for your freedom. Because you are special to Me and I love you, I gladly give up other peoples in exchange for you...So don’t be afraid. I am here” (Isa. 43:3-5a VOI).
It is unfathomable just how much God loves us … how much He has always loved us. Even when we were far away from Him. The apostle Paul tells us, “think about this: while we were wasting our lives in sin, God revealed His powerful love to us in a tangible display—the Anointed One died for us“” (Rom. 5:8 NIV)
How different would our witness to the world be if we truly believed we were speaking to the Father's dearly beloved sons and daughters who were far from Him, unable to find their way home? What if we made it our mission to show them how much God loves them, just as they are, even if it is in a muddy pigsty, rather than pointing out how relatively clean we are and how much God hates them? Who would have the strength or willingness to drag themselves up out of a pigpen or a faraway land to go home to a Father who hates them? They need to know now, while they’re still far off, how much the Father loves them and the warm, loving welcome they can expect to receive when they return home to Him.