Church leaders (like everyone else) don't believe God loves them.
How else can you explain the astounding number of pastoral burnouts, dropouts, and 'kicked outs'? I know that conventional wisdom tells us that people assume and take advantage of God's love, but I simply have not found that to be true in my life and the lives of friends and clients.
I know that I don't believe God loves me because I don't love him (with all my heart, soul, mind and strength), and I don't love the people God has put around me (as much as I love myself). My failure to love is not because I am presumptuous. I do not love because I am convinced I am neither loved nor loveable.
And it's this crisis of belief that makes me very happy and grateful that my friend Alex Early has written The Reckless Love of God: Experiencing the Personal, Passionate Heart of the Gospel. I just finished reading it, and God used it to persuade me that he really does love me. I want you to read it because I want you to live and lead persuaded and enthralled that the real God who knows the real you really, really loves you.
How do I know that's true? Consider three reasons that Alex lays out in his book:
1. JESUS Loves You
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible shares the story of Jesus, the Son of God and God the Son. The love that exists between the Father, Son, and Spirit reveals that the heartbeat of God is love for someone else. God always has been, always will be, and right now is absolutely and emphatically the One who is Love.
And we know what that means for sinners, strugglers and skeptics that inhabit the ranks of church leadership by going to Jesus, the person who most clearly expressed that love. The way Jesus treats bitter and broken people is exactly the way that God feels about them.
Church leader, your quest for identity, value and purpose will never be fulfilled by outward success or optimistic self-talk. The deepest questions and longings of your soul can be satisfied today by the blazing heart and actions of God's Son, Jesus.
2. Jesus LOVES You
"Every act of Jesus recorded in the Gospels is an act of love. Every act. [Every word] conveyed love" (47). Because you and I don't believe that, the Sovereign King comes to us and transforms theory into reality.
He is personally and passionately committed to you. All of you. Words like compassion and covenant get dusted off and come to life as we watch Jesus follow his heart to heal the sick, share God's message and feed the hungry.
And while it is true that Jesus loves the Church, that doesn't water down his love for you. Church leader, " when Jesus looks at you, both in your greatest strength and most profound weaknesses, his gut wrenches with love and his heart opens from the depth of his being. He feels for you" (58).
3. Jesus Loves YOU
How much does God care about you? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches you how life works best - loving others - anxiety-free - because God is a loving Father. And when you reject that life - and that Father - Jesus shares stories about lost sheep, lost coins and lost sons to give you the imagination to believe that you can "never run too far, or be too lost, for God to find [you]" (74).
But you need more than stories. You need surgery. And the real Jesus is not afraid to get messy touching, healing and restoring you back to health, loving God and others because you are convinced that he loves you. In the stories you and I know well enough to teach - the paralytic who is let down through a roof (Mark 2), the Samaritan woman (John 4), Lazarus dead inside a cave (John 11) - Jesus comes near to convince you that he loves you, too. "When he says you are forgiven, you are forgiven. When he says you are loved, you are loved. When he says you are free, you are free" (88). He wants you to watch him answer the questions of a broken woman filled with shame, so you'll find the courage to ask him your questions. He makes sure you know that he waited two days until Lazarus was dead to persuade you that it's not too late for him to bring the dead parts of your soul back to life.
How far is God willing to go for you? Sentimentalism and platitudes will not break the chokehold of fear and doubt. Others can tell you that you are loved. You might have moments where you believe you are loveable. But you know too much about the justice of God and the depths of your depravity to receive, own and extend real love to yourself and others. What you need is not a distant, distracted God who is only known through doctrine and formalized doxology.
When you walk through the story of Jesus, you watch him come near and look at people. Peter in the midst of his denial. Paul on the road to Damascus. The piercing gaze of Jesus into the depths of your soul will blind you and bring you to tears. Because he knows you. He sees you. He comes to free you from the folly of believing you can fix yourself. He will not stop staring and showing up along the road of life until you are convinced that you are at the end of your rope. He shows up at breakfast and keeps asking you if you love him (John 21). Because he wants you to see the reality of your love for him, broken and flawed as it may be. He is showing you that you have not defaulted on his offer of reckless love we call grace.
Church leader, the real Jesus is merciful. He sees the pain you have suffered and the pain you have caused. And he wants you to know that you are not alone in your suffering. Look at the cross and see Jesus, the suffering servant, loving you as he suffers for you and with you, weeping for you and with you.
Do The Next Right Thing
First, buy The Reckless Love of God. What an incredible gift from God! And if you are not convinced that you should buy it, then watch the book trailer and let Alex's movie star looks take the money right out of your pockets :-)
Second, I'll leave you with this. Alex includes some profound wisdom about cultivating faith and the place that real life with spiritual outsiders holds in convincing you that God really loves you. In his conclusion, he writes:
If you have been a Christian for years and practically memorized the Twenty-third Psalm, John 3:16, and the Romans Road before you could walk, be encouraged that God, in his grace, found you when he did! Think back to when and where he introduced himself to you. Open up those passages one more time. There's more in them for you. Like the Author who wrote it, the Word is inexhaustible. King David wrote about 'deep calling to deep.' The bottomless cries from your soul and the riches of his Word correspond. There is more love to be received, more truth to be believed, and more good news to be savored among the 'insiders' and shared with the 'outsiders.' Don't buy the lie that pushes you toward the lazy cop-outs that rob you from time with him and discipling others in his name.