May 15, 2000
 If God Loves
Everyone, Where
Does That Leave Me?

Appreciating God's
Distinctive Love
    
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The language we use in modern Christianity to speak about God and his love for us often fails to do justice to the special ways in which he relates to us as individuals. I first became convinced of this when a woman spoke with me following a seminar. For much of her life, Nancy had been reluctant to commit herself to Christ, even though she believed some of the tenets of Christian doctrine.

She summed up her misgivings in an unforgettable statement: "For a long time I had no doubt that God loved me, but it made no difference to me--for the fact is that God loves everyone. And if God loves everybody, what's so special about the fact that he loves me?"

Although I had never heard it expressed this way before, I realized immediately that Nancy had her point. Our manner of speaking about God can imply that there is no individuality in a relationship with him. We talk of him loving everyone, and loving them equally, impartially, the same way. While to one person this speaks of great security in a relationship with Christ, to another it speaks of a loss of distinctiveness.

We long for distinctiveness as human creatures, probably more than anything. We each want to know that we are originals and not copies. We crave assurance that we are somehow unique among the mass of humanity, that there is justification to our existence.

The desire for distinctiveness touches us on two levels. We want to know that our work and accomplishment are unique, that we can contribute something to human life which no one else can. But we also long for distinctiveness within relationships. Much of the thrill of being loved and cherished by someone is the sense of being special that goes along with it. You know you're accepted for whom you are and esteemed in a way that is different from that person's affection for anyone else.

Yet if God loves everyone in an equal, unbiased fashion, how can there be anything distinctive about a relationship with him? What's so novel about receiving his love? What possibility for creative accomplishment is there in living for him? You're simply one of the mass, responding to a vast cosmic love force.

Nancy had put her finger on why it is that some people, though convinced that a loving God

exists--perhaps even persuaded he has revealed himself in Christ--still fail to take the step of giving their life to him. It would mean losing their individuality--entering a life of clonely conformity with others who have joined the Christian club.

She had also singled out why some believers actually bail out of their Christian walk. The chaplain of a large Christian university agreed with me that the major reason some students on Christian campuses abandon their faith is that they see nothing distinctive about being a Christian. Unlike the secular campus--where one may enjoy a cherished sense of rebellion by being a Christian--everyone around them is a Christian, responding to a God who loves them identically and has similar intentions for their lives. Individuality, they conclude, can only be found outside of a relationship with Christ.

From Despair to Distinction

But Nancy, fortunately, had come to see God in a more creative fashion than this. "I've finally come to realize that God does love me differently from any other person," she continued. "I don't mean that he loves me any more than anyone else, only distinctively. There is a portion of his love that is meant for me and for me alone." She went on to explain that this discovery had been the turning point, allowing her to come into a meaningful relationship with Christ.

The thought of God's love being distinctive was revolutionary to me. But the more I've reflected on it, the more I've become convinced that this is exactly the outlook Scripture presents. God is pictured as one who loves each person equally, perfectly, completely--yet still in a fashion unique to that individual. There is a measure of his love meant for each of us alone.

On five occasions in his gospel, for instance, John refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved (Jn 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20). He clearly didn't mean that Jesus loved him more than anyone else. He notes that Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Jn 11:5, 36), and all of his disciples (Jn 13:1). In his most far-reaching statements John quotes Jesus as saying that anyone who follows him will be loved by God (Jn 14:21), and that God through Christ loves the world (Jn 3:16).

Why, then, did John call himself the disciple whom Jesus loved? I believe he meant that Jesus' love for him, while not exclusive, nor greater than his love for anyone else, was distinctive. Christ loved him in a way unique from his affection for any other person!

John would surely have thought it appropriate for Peter or any other disciple to make this same claim. By the same token, it's one that each of us who follows Christ can make for ourselves. The remarkable freedom John felt, in referring to himself in this fashion, suggests that we should think of ourselves in this way. It is not egotistical to do so, but vital to our self-image as Christians.

I've been intrigued to find no less a thinker than C. S. Lewis making a similar point. In The Problem of Pain he declares, "Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently?"*

Centuries before, St. Augustine reflected on the distinctive nature of God's love in a prayer of his Confessions: "O Thou Good omnipotent, who so carest for every one of us, as if Thou caredst for him only; and so for all, as if they were but one!"*

Equal but not Identical

We can barely begin to fathom this dimension of God's love. It is a deep mystery. But we can realize some of its implications.

For one thing, it gives us a basis for accepting our own distinctiveness. An important way that God shows his love for us is through the unique manner in which he creates and sustains our lives (Ps 139, 1 Cor 12). While it is a lifetime task to fully understand the gifts and plans God has for each of us, we do have a theological basis for taking that task seriously, and for getting beyond the idea that the Christian life must be a conforming one.

For another thing, we have a basis for seeking an intimate personal relationship with Christ, knowing that it will be different in important respects from that experienced by any other Christian. C. S. Lewis suggests that we will enjoy a distinctive relationship with Christ even in eternity. Reflecting on Scripture's promise that we will receive a new name in heaven (Rev. 2:17), he predicts that there we each "shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can."*

Christ will also have a distinctive pattern of growth for each of our lives. There may be areas of spiritual development where it seems you're not even moving at a snail's pace, while others are growing by leaps and bounds. Your friend has a devotional time for an hour every morning, while you struggle to concentrate for fifteen minutes. But other areas of growth may come unusually quickly for you. You quickly overcome an addictive habit; you find an ability to share your faith which seems out of all proportion with your shyness.

It can be so tempting to compare yourself with others at points of strength and weakness. Yet such comparisons are always meaningless. Even the person whom you most admire as a pinnacle of spiritual strength has plenty of vulnerable points.

The fact that God loves us distinctively inspires us also to accept the uniqueness he has given to other believers. And it saves us from thinking that we need to leave a Christian setting in order to salvage our individuality. The student on a Christian campus can know that while she shares something similar and vital with those around her, Christ's relationship with her and plan for her life are unique--as is true for each of her classmates. She can esteem them as individuals, and feel great freedom to be herself, where she is.

You and I should reflect often on the distinctive love God has for us, and what this means for the life he has called us to live. Appreciating it will enrich our own relationship with him in endless ways, and strengthen our ability to love others with the affection of Christ.

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