Three Unexpected Lessons in God’s Love
How the tables turn on our theology
When we were dating, my husband told me about his love for crosses. This was confirmed on my first visit to his house, which is full of them—above doorframes, on walls, he even carries small, wooden ones in his coat pockets. And he loves to place them in the hands of others, so they have something to hold onto when they need a tangible reminder of Jesus. My friend said her son still carries the cross Evan gave him in his backpack to school every day.
And he doesn’t just love the empty cross of the resurrected Jesus. He loves the crucifix. The suffering Christ. When I asked him why—quietly concerned about what it might say about his theology, commitment to Protestantism, etc.—he told me about sitting by his wife’s hospital bed as she suffered from cancer. How it was the crucifix, not the empty cross, that became his symbol of hope. Yes, Jesus has risen. But Jesus is also the Man of Sorrows, well acquainted with grief. The suffering Christ was the one he needed as he watched his first wife suffer. The bloody Christ, familiar with pain, is who he clung to in his darkest hour. “How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us?” Nicholas Wolterstorff asks in Lament for a Son. “We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.”
The Praise Song
When I first heard the praise song, “How He Loves,” I recoiled at what I considered sloppy metaphors and turned up my nose at the simple refrain: He loves us, oh how he loves us, how he loves us so, considering it man-centric, fluffy, and beneath my hymn-raised Christian soul. Reader, I am ashamed to continue. I even found reasons to walk out of the chapel at the Christian school where I taught when the worship band began playing the song, thinking I was more spiritually advanced than those who considered oh how he loves us sufficient theology.
One time, in class, two of my high school students pressed me about why I didn’t like the song. I saw their faces fall as I listed my reasons. Now I recognize that they were miles ahead of me, singing about and resting in the simple but profound truth that God loves them—a truth that is never tired, never cheesy, never untrue. A truth that I, despite all my theological training and head-knowledge, am still learning to grasp. At the time, all I could think about was how the theology wasn’t complex enough.
I was confronted with the song again this year when I began playing in a community worship band every Monday night—one made up of people from different churches in town. We pray and sing together, inviting anyone to join us. The very first night, I saw “How He Loves” on our song list and wondered: “Can I sing this with sincerity?” As we began, God rushed these convictions upon me and I realized that it was my students who had it right all along. What I previously felt too pious to sing contained the very truth I needed most: Oh how he loves us so.
I first picked up The Ragamuffin Gospel a decade ago in college. I tried to get into it but couldn’t. It was set aside and lost somewhere among the shuffle between my dorm room and my old bedroom at my parents’ house. Years later, a friend lent it to me. “You have to read this,” she said. It was evident that the book had changed her. I tried to pick it up again, but somehow, it didn’t resonate. Thoughts like: Great, another book on love and grace, and, Is everyone too afraid to write about things like God’s wrath? went through my mind as I lost it again, this time among stacks of novels and lesson plans.
Years after that, after the loss of so many things, I found the book in a box and thought I would give it one last try. Weary and humiliated by suffering, disappointment, and an ever-growing knowledge of my persistent weakness, I picked up Brennan Manning’s words, and this time, the introduction alone had me in tears. I nodded my head and wanted to write a check mark in black ink alongside every sentence. Manning starts: This book is not for the super-spiritual. Check. It is for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out. Check. The wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it altogether and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace . . . Check. The inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker . . . Check. The bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God . . . Check. The sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from on hand to the other . . . Check. The smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags . . . Check.
I poured over Manning’s words, recognizing a gospel I could recite but had never fully grasped: the gospel of grace. I saw, in one quote by Lloyd Ogilvie, my spiritual problem and the reason I couldn’t stick with Manning’s book until now: “We have turned the tables; we try to live so that he will love us, rather than living because he has already loved us.” God, turn the tables of my heart, so that I live the true gospel. So that I live loved.
And the Lord knows that I have spent too many years boasting. And now, so do you.
I grow low, not high.
And I’ll be singing:
“Jesus Loves Me” when I die.