In the musical My Fair Lady, the main character Eliza Doolittle sings about her frustration when loving words from her various suitors aren’t followed up by loving deeds. “Words! Words! Words!,” she exclaims to one of them, Freddy. “I’m so sick of words! I get words all day through; First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do?” Then, as is customary in musicals, she breaks into song and at one point demands, “Sing me no song! Read me no rhyme! Don’t waste my time, Show me! Don’t talk of June, Don’t talk of Fall! Don’t talk at all! Show me!” We can appreciate Eliza’s irritation, can’t we? It can be frustrating in any relationship when someone says they love us but their words don’t match up with their actions.
And this is no less true of our relationship with God. Isn’t one of our greatest frustrations that of being told God loves us when we aren’t able to see any evidence of his love in the midst of difficult circumstances, when we feel as though our worlds are falling apart?
How can we say God loves us when we are struggling so?
How can we say God loves us when we have so many worries?
How can we say God loves us if we are suffering?
How can we say God loves us if those we love are struggling—and worrying—and suffering?
These are all common and understandable questions that I suspect humans have been asking since the time human life on earth began—or at least since the time of the Fall when our first parents turned their backs on our Maker and were subsequently banished from the paradisal garden they had been privileged to enjoy.
But before we turn to consider how it’s possible to say God loves us—or that God is love as he discloses himself to be in Scripture (our passage for next week)—I think we need to begin with a different set of questions. Because if we’re honest, isn’t it the case that we often say we love someone and yet don’t act in a loving manner? So might we not begin by posing similar questions to ourselves?
Why is it that we so often know the right thing to do in a given situation but are either unable or unwilling to do it?
Why is it that even those who have been raised in a good and moral manner nonetheless end up saying and doing things they regret—things that go against their better judgment?
Why is it that we as individuals—not to mention nations—are so often at war with one another?
Why is it that we’re so suspicious of one another?
Why are we so fearful of one another?
Why are we so slow to reach out and get to know one another?
I know of no person, not even the most godly, disciplined, motivated or determined among us who is capable of living their life in a manner that is consistently selfless, moral, compassionate, and loving. I know of no person who never loses their temper—or who is never impatient—or who has no regrets. Let’s face it, we may seek to be high-minded in the way in which we conduct our lives but in actuality we often act in petty and selfish ways. As is true with Eliza Doolittle’s suitors, we often know how to say all of the right things; we may even have the best of intentions; but our follow-through often leaves much to be desired.
In considering God’s love for us I begin with us because unless we see that wonderful as human behavior can be, it often and regularly falls short from all that it could and should be, then we won’t be able to grasp the nature of God’s love as revealed in his Person and work. Scripturally understood God’s love begins with the fact that he made us. And not only did he make us, but he made us for himself, in his image, that we might know, love, and live with and for him. But as already noted, we also know from Scripture that Adam and Eve, our first parents, rejected their relationship with God and were tempted instead to know and follow the ways of the prince of this world, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan. This is why we’re unable to be the people we can envision ourselves being. Because the Fall changed our natures from being righteous, directed towards God, to being unrighteous, directed against God. So though we can still have a vision—a distant memory, an ancient echo—of how God intended us to be, we no longer have the ability or desire to fulfill that intention and purpose.
But we need to realize as well that none of this, not Adam and Eve’s yielding to the temptation by the serpent nor its aftermath, was a surprise to God—he is God, after all. Therefore Scripture tells that before the foundation of the world, our Triune God, knowing that we would turn against him, nonetheless determined to do something about our eventual predicament. As we read in Ephesians, “4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” Mysterious as all of this sounds, what is clear is that the Fall was no surprise or obstacle to God. Just the opposite—his choosing us to be holy and blameless; his bestowing his love upon us that we might be adopted to be his children took place not only in accordance with his pleasure and will but it took place even before the Creation or Fall had ever occurred. Paul elaborates upon this in his second letter to Timothy telling how “9 He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” Again, if the grace now extended to us by God in Christ has existed even before the beginning of time, then the Fall was no surprise. And note how Paul states that this before-the-beginning-of-time-grace-through-Christ has destroyed the very death that resulted because of the Fall; this before-the-beginning-of-time-grace-through-Christ was ever intended to be the means of our eternal life with Christ. So the solution to our fallen predicament, to that which keeps us from being the people we know we should be, has ever-centered around God sending his Son in the fullness of time. As we read in verse 16 of our passage, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”
Though we may be fixated with or distracted by or overtaken by the small picture of our current and perhaps very real suffering, God is focused on the big picture. Though we may view the evidence of love as the removal of our current suffering, God is focused on removing suffering at its source both now and forever. And in the account of the Fall Scripture identifies at least two sources of suffering.
One source of suffering and evil is to be found in our fallen natures that are now hard-wired to destroy themselves and others—and which nature ultimately leads to death;
A further source of suffering is Satan, the father of all lies and evil, who has ever sought to lure away and destroy God’s image-bearers.
And because we are helpless and incapable of changing our nature or destroying Satan and his followers on our own, before the foundation of the world God in Christ determined to do so for us by dying in our place that he might first, as we saw last week, take away our sin. For not only did God in Christ take our sin upon himself in order to take it away from us, but he further determined to rise from death, that death itself might be destroyed and we might experience eternal life with him. And second, God in Christ further determined to destroy Satan, that ancient serpent, that he might thereby destroy evil at its source.
But God’s love for us doesn’t end there. No, far from it! For having dealt with the sources of our suffering he further determined to teach and guide us in holiness so he sent us his Holy Spirit to seal and indwell those who believe in Christ that we might be able to know and love him and be enabled to follow in his ways as disclosed in his Word. And finally, our gracious and heavenly Father further determined to make us a family, that we might help each other know, love, and follow our Creator and Redeemer and love and care for each other as well.
So the evidence that God loves us isn’t that we are granted lives of ease;
The evidence that God loves us isn’t that we are granted everything we want;
The evidence that God loves us isn’t that we are spared suffering.
For all of these are a part of our temporal, limited earthly existence. No, the evidence that God loves us is found in the fact that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, willingly chose to take on the penalty of our sin—of our lack of desire to know and follow him and his ways—by dying on the cross in our place and then rising from death and giving those who believe him his victory over death and subsequent fellowship with our heavenly Father by means of our union with him by his Holy Spirit whom he sent us. Therefore God in Christ laid down his life for us. God in Christ died for us. God in Christ took upon himself the penalty of our sin that we might be with him now and forever.
So for those who do know Jesus Christ; for those who have placed their faith and trust in him, this intimate knowledge, this intimate relationship with the Triune God should be evident in how we live our lives. As John urges at the end of verse 16, “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” To know Jesus Christ is to desire to imitate him, to be like him. This is what worship entails—becoming like the object of our adoration. And though it may be that one day we’ll find ourselves in a situation of being able to actually die on behalf of another brother or sister in Christ, such laying down of our lives needn’t be that drastic. It can be as simple as providing materially for a brother or sister who is in need. As stated in verse 17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” If someone you know has a material need that you’re able to meet, but you choose not to meet it, you’re not demonstrating love but indifference or perhaps even love’s opposite, hatred. And since this kind of indifference doesn’t typify the way that God loves us neither should it typify the way we demonstrate God’s love to others. James says something very similar in his epistle: “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” To take a different example from recent events in the news, isn’t this what is being expressed by so many of the students who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida in February? They don’t want our “thoughts and prayers,” they want action. They want for adults in power to use that power to help those who are most powerless and vulnerable—though I need to add parenthetically that I, of course, do think prayers matter as they help shape our wills to that of our heavenly Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s and help us to see the events of our lives—the good, the bad, the mundane—through his eyes, with his perspective. But I take their point. It’s the same as Eliza Dolittle’s but over something far more serious—don’t say you care; show me!
I think it’s interesting—and perhaps intentional on John’s part—that he chooses the sharing of our material possessions as a way that we, as did our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, can lay down our lives for the sake of another. Paul says something similar in his second letter to the church at Corinth. First he commends believers not in Corinth but in the Macedonian churches for their generosity for
2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.
Therefore, turning to the church in Corinth, Paul exhorts them similarly to “see that you also excel in this grace of giving” (verse 7b). And Paul, as does John in our letter, urges these believers not just by telling them of the generosity of other believers, but ultimately by reminding them of the generosity of Jesus himself: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (verse 9). Though Christ was God, he became poor, that is, he chose to put on a human body, and suffer, and die for our salvation. He chose all of this that we might become rich, that is, that we might experience eternal life with him once he rose from death, ascended to heaven, and sent us his Holy Spirit. Now that’s evidence of God’s love. That’s love in action.
Now these two apostles, John and Paul, are but repeating the teaching of Jesus. As he himself warns in his Sermon on the Mount, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” But notice the two masters that Jesus specifically singles out: “You cannot serve both God and money.” It occurred to me as I was thinking about these Scriptural themes that perhaps there is a deeper connection between Jesus Christ laying down his life for us and us laying down our lives for our brothers and sisters by sharing our material possessions. Perhaps because we who live in Ipswich and surrounding communities have so much wealth—at least compared to much of the world—that we rarely if ever worry about where or whether we will have a next meal as in James’ example. Therefore we’re unable to immediately see the connection between providing a meal and laying down our life because when we think about sharing our material possessions, we think about sharing out of our abundance. But what if what we were being asked to do isn’t to share from our abundance but from whatever we happen to have, even if it isn’t very much at all so that we were tempted to hoard whatever we did own? So if we have something but see someone who has nothing—or even less than we—then there might be a sense of laying down our lives for having shared what we have for we are potentially impoverishing ourselves for the sake of meeting the need of another. Yet we’re called to do so. We’re called to hold our material goods lightly and share them liberally with those in need.
I learned a much milder version of this when I was a young, just-out-of-college financially struggling seminarian. There was a time when I didn’t tithe because, I told myself, I was broke and had nothing to give. So I thought, “Well, one day, when I have a real job, I will tithe.” And yet even as a poor—at least in my mind—seminarian, I would on occasion go out to restaurants to eat with friends. So perhaps I wasn’t as financially poor as I thought. Again, we’re not told by John to give and care for others “one day” when we believe ourselves to be materially comfortable. No, we’re called instead to give as the churches in Macedonia that were in extreme poverty gave. For despite their poverty they nonetheless begged Paul for the privilege and opportunity of giving to those who were in even greater need than themselves. Now that’s an example of the cheerful giving that Paul speaks about later in his letter: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” So, too, John reminds us that such sharing of our material possessions with a brother or sister in need is what we’re called to do in verse 18: “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” So Eliza Doolittle is right, after all. It’s not enough to tell someone we love them; it’s not enough to wish them well; it’s not enough to pray; it’s not enough to empathize with a sister or brother in need. We’re called to do something; to show them by our deeds, by helping to provide for them, that we do indeed love them.
John builds upon this active and truthful love in verse 19 where he provides a guideline for how we can know that we are acting in a manner that is consistent with God’s truth. “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence,” he begins. On the one hand, verse 20, “If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” By our conscience and by his Holy Spirit who indwells us, God has provided a means for believers to know whether we are acting in accordance with his truth, in accordance with his word. For by his Word and Spirit he has provided the means for us to know when we have sinned or acted in a lawless manner. Though we may be surprised at how uncaring—or heartless—or unloving—or perhaps even ruthless we’re capable of being, God is not. He knows us. But what is more, he loves us and has given us his Son and his Spirit that we might grow in holiness; that we might grow in his truth; that we might grow in his love; that we might grow in his ways and be not only speakers of truth but doers of truth that our words and speech might become aligned with his. God has demonstrated that his love is greater than our heart’s condemnation by offering us his innocent Son’s obedient life in the place of our disobedience. And in so doing he has taken away our sin therefore we need no longer condemn ourselves but instead turn away from the source of our condemnation and turn—and cling to—and embrace his love and forgiveness in its place.
The flipside of this self-condemnation is found beginning with verse 21: “21 Dear friends,”—and again, “Beloved” is a far better translation—“if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.” The first part of what John is saying seems obvious enough—if we have a clear conscience, which is how I’m understanding our hearts not condemning us, then of course we’ll have confidence before God because we’ve nothing to hide. It is the child that has done something wrong that seeks to hide from his or her parents, not the child that has done nothing wrong. But the receiving of “anything we ask” is a little more difficult to make sense of because even when our consciences have been clear, there isn’t a Christian alive who hasn’t failed to receive something that they’ve sought from God. So the receiving of “anything we ask” shouldn’t be understood as an open-ended fill-in-the-blank with your request, but within the context of what John has been teaching. Therefore if we ask God to help us keep his commands, he will, without a doubt help us to do so. For by God’s indwelling Holy Spirit he is helping our wills align with his will. So if, for instance, we seek to share our material possessions with a brother or sister in need, this kind of request is one God will always grant and bless because this is precisely what he’s asked us to do with our material goods. We receive what we ask because, in John’s words, “we keep his commands and do what pleases him.” Notice how active the Christian life is. It involves keeping Christ’s commands and doing those things that will please him.
And so John summarizes God’s command starting with verse 23: “And this is his command:” First, “to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and” Second, “to love one another as he commanded us.” We must begin with believing in Christ because unless we believe in Christ, we’ll be unable to love as he calls us to love. Belief in Christ is the beginning of our salvation. It’s the beginning of our transitioning from being rightly judged by God for our having rejected him, to our being declared “not guilty” and righteous by God for our having accepted his Son. For believing in Christ is how God has determined to deal with the source of our problem, our fallen nature that leads to death. And, once we believe, we are then enabled “to love one another as he [commands].” For, verse 24, “The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” Last week we noted that to know Jesus is to love him. Well here this same sentiment is echoed. For to believe in the name of Jesus Christ, our heavenly Father’s Son is also to love him. And to love him should result in loving other believers, other members of our heavenly Father’s family, other brothers and sisters in Christ. And, again, we are able to do all of this through Christ’s Holy Spirit:
whom he sends us when we first believe in Christ;
and who then seals us with the promise that all things that belong to Christ also belong to us;
and whose indwelling further enables us to conform to God’s will and ways.
Christ’s Holy Spirit teaches and enables us, in other words, to love God with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength, and each other as ourselves. For in the end, to love another believer is to love Christ for this is how closely Christ identifies with those who have believed in and now follow him.
So how do we know God loves us?
We know God loves us because by sending Christ to die for us, he’s dealt with the source of our sin. By dying in our place, he has put to death our former fallen nature and thereby transferred us from being condemned by our own disobedience to being justified by his Son Jesus Christ’s obedience;
We know God loves us because Christ not only died for us, thereby putting death to death but he put Satan to death as well; and Christ the rose for us and in so doing gave us eternal life with him;
We know God loves us because having died and risen for us, Christ sent us his Holy Spirit that we might be united to and thereby draw closer to God and learn and do his ways;
We know God loves us because having united us to himself by his indwelling Holy Spirit, he also gave us each other, an eternal family, that we might never have to be alone in this world but might encourage and help one another in good times and bad;
This is how God has shown us his love. Dear sisters and brothers, let us likewise show love to those around us.
Let us pray.
 Show Me. Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. Frederick Loewe, Composer.
 1 John 4:8b.
 Genesis 1:26–28: 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
 Genesis 1:6: When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.; John 12:31: Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.
 Revelation 12:9: The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.; Revelation 20:2: He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.
 Ephesians 1:4–5.
 2 Timothy 1:9–10.
 James 2:14–17.
 2 Corinthians 8.
 Matthew 6:24. A parallel is found in Luke 16:13: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” For an example of one who desired to serve God but couldn’t bring himself to due to his great wealth, see the Gospel accounts of the Rich Young Ruler: Mark 10:17–27; Matthew 19:16–22; Luke 18:18–23.
 2 Corinthians 9:7.
 The Greek is “Ἀγαπητοί.”