“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” - 1 John 3:1a
For the past several years, a great deal has been written and discussed regarding the mass exodus of young people from the church. It is a disturbing pattern to see the same kids who were spiritual leaders in their youth groups grow into adulthood and, over a period of time, begin to walk away from everything they were raised to believe. It has been the frequent topic of books and blogs, workshops and conferences--eliciting gut-wrenching responses from loved ones who grieve over such departures from faith. Other times the troubling trend is explained away with a list of accusations and criticisms towards the Church. Often, the problem seems to leave us with questions for which there are no satisfactory answers.
The answer may be far simpler than all the discussions suggest, and may lie in the way some of the most foundational tenets of Christianity have been presented, in particular, the way in which the issue of God’s love for us speaks to our identity.
Wrong Thinking Exposed
Recently, the Holy Spirit used an experience to highlight my own struggle with resting in God’s love for me, even after years of walking in relationship with Him.
My three-year-old son was having one of his less-than-charming days, which included being mean to his sister, lots of yelling, and frequent meltdowns. My nerves were completely frazzled, and as he launched into yet another tantrum, I took him up to his bed, telling him he could come back out when he had calmed down (although secretly I was hoping he was going to fall asleep and give his poor mommy a break).
I pulled his door shut and paused a moment, willing myself to breathe and calm down. Standing there outside his room, as my mind raced to figure out where my parenting skills had gone awry that day, I heard the Holy Spirit whisper to me, Does his behavior make him unworthy of your love?
I was taken aback. Of course not! I responded in my spirit. He might be hard for me to like right in this moment, but I would never say he’s not worthy of my love. He’s my son!
It took a moment in my flustered state before the truth settled into me. This is what I have believed about God’s love. This is what I have been taught about God’s love--that I do not deserve it because I am so imperfect.
What Message Have We Been Speaking?
I used to be utterly bewildered by the number of people I encountered who had grown up in Christian homes but still struggled to accept God’s love for them. I spent many hours weeping and wondering how--even after the many profound encounters I’d had with God--I still struggled to simply rest in His love for me. The disconnect troubled me so much, but in this challenging moment of parenting, clarity began to come.
We struggle to accept God’s love because we believe we are not worthy of it. We feel He has taken pity on us or chosen to love us in spite of all our failings rather than in the midst of all our failings. And who wants to be pitied or loved in spite of something? This is not the intimate, unconditional love our hearts desire. But this is what we teach and say and sing in our worship gatherings:
“We’re so unworthy, but He still loves us.”
“I don’t deserve God’s love, but He still gives it to me.”
“We were so sinful that God could not bear to be close to us. He had to send His Son to die.”
I believe the enemy has woven this lie into our understanding of the gospel because it keeps us from knowing our true identity as children of God. In turn, this deception keeps us from walking in the authority and promises available to us.
God does not love us because He pities us; He loves us because we are His children. We are worthy of His love simply because we belong to Him. Just as I would not for a moment see my son as undeserving of my love because of his bad behavior, God does not see us as undeserving of His love even when we are less than perfect. As a matter of fact, Romans declares that the depths of God’s love toward us are revealed in His willingness to extravagantly sacrifice and love us through the gift of His Son even while we were still tangled up with sin (see Romans 5:8).
Jesus’ death on the cross was not about God’s inability to bear being near such sinful children; it was about God being unable to bear the thought of being without us. It was the knowledge of what sin would do to us, the way it would separate us from Him, and His willingness to throw us the ultimate lifeline because He wanted us near. The cross is a profound declaration of our value--with no guarantee of whether or not we would choose to embrace the sacrifice Jesus made, He still saw us as worth dying for; we were the joy that was set before Him (see Hebrews 12:2).
The danger in believing we are unworthy of His love lies in two traps: either we will spend a lifetime striving and fighting to be worthy of His love, or we will give up in despair because we can never be good enough. Either path keeps us from fully embracing our true identity and experiencing the freedom it brings.
Uprooting old ways of thinking and developing new ones can be a challenging process, but it is worth it. Here is a starting place:
Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal places where you have believed a lie about your worth.
Ask yourself: what would you do if you were absolutely confident that nothing would separate you from God’s love (see Romans 8:38, 39)? What risks would you be willing to take? What dreams would you pursue? Consider writing these things down or sharing them with a trusted friend.
Make it a daily practice to meditate on the verses referenced in this article, and let truth deeply root itself within you. You are most certainly worthy of God’s love, and it is His pleasure to lavish it upon you!