February 15, 2007
 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 he relates to us as individuals. I grew convinced of this after a woman once told me she had long resisted giving her life to Christ because God’s love seemed too universal to her.

“For a long time I had no doubt that God loved me,” Nancy confessed, “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 talking about God can imply that there’s no distinctiveness in a relationship with him. We speak of him loving everyone, and loving them equally, impartially, the same way. While the thought of God’s love being so inclusive is deeply comforting to some, others fear their individuality will be lost if they allow him to have much influence in their life.

We long for distinctiveness as human creatures--probably more than anything. We each want to know that we’re originals among the mass of humanity and not copies. We crave assurance that we’re unmatched by anyone else who has walked this earth, that we may know there is justification to our existence.

This urge for distinctiveness touches us on two levels. We long, on the one hand, to know that our work and accomplishment are unique--that we’re able to contribute something to human life that no one else can. But we also yearn for distinctiveness in 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 that you’re accepted for who you are, and esteemed in a way that’s 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 of believers, 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 that he has revealed himself in Christ--still fail to give their life to him. It would mean losing their individuality, and entering a life of clonely conformity with others who have joined the Christian movement.

Nancy’s struggle also highlights why some believers actually bail out of their Christian walk. The chaplain of a large Christian university agreed with me, for instance, that the major reason some students on Christian campuses abandon their faith is that they see little distinctive about being Christian. On the secular campus, one may enjoy a cherished sense of rebellion by following Christ. At the Christian college, by contrast, everyone around you is a believer. If a student assumes that God loves him and his classmates all identically and has similar intentions for their lives, he may reach the fateful conclusion: individuality can only be found outside of a relationship with Christ.

From Despair to Distinction

Nancy, however, was no longer inclined to think of God and the Christian life this way. Her concept of God had grown and changed substantially, and she now viewed him much more personally than she first implied.

“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, but distinctively. I’m convinced there is a portion of his love that is meant for me and for me alone.” She went on to explain that this insight had been the turning point for her, allowing her to enter 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). John clearly didn’t mean that Jesus loved him more than anyone else. He notes that Jesus also 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 surely would have thought it appropriate for Peter or any other disciple to make this claim. By the same token, it’s one that each of us who follows Christ can make for ourselves. The remarkable freedom John felt to refer to himself in this way suggests that we should think of ourselves likewise. “I am the disciple whom Jesus loves.” Such a conviction isn’t egotistical, but central to our self-image as Christians.

I’ve been intrigued to find no less a thinker than C. S. Lewis suggesting that God loves us in an individual manner. In The Problem of Pain he declares, “Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently?”*

Many centuries before, St. Augustine expressed a similar understanding of God’s love in a prayer of his Confessions: “O Thou Good omnipotent, who so cares for every one of us, as if Thou cared 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 guides 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 have a theological basis for taking that responsibility seriously, and for getting beyond any idea that the Christian life must be conformist.

For another thing, we have a basis for seeking an intimate personal relationship with Christ, knowing it will be different from any other Christian’s. 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.”*

God’s distinctive love is also shown in how he nurtures and matures us, with a different pattern of growth for each of our lives. It may seem you’re not moving at a snail’s pace in some area where 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 come surprisingly quickly for you. You quickly overcome an addictive habit; you find an ability to share your faith that is 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 have to leave the Christian environment 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 his plan for her life are unique, as is true for each of her classmates. She can esteem her fellow students as individuals, and feel great freedom to be herself--where she is.

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

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