How then do we move away from our idolatrous service, away from anxious, obligatory feelings into the place of rest? The first is to see(1) the Father’s love and the second is to place your faith(2) in him and trust in the promises of his love to us (which we know are true and trustworthy because of the manifold ways that he has demonstrated that love to us, namely in Christ).
For many Christians, the issue of these anxious, obligatory feelings is not only one that stems from a lack of faith in the love of God (if I may so put it that way) but also distinctly from a lack of sight of the love of God. Many of us believe that God loves us (or at least affirm that we believe) but by our actions we often demonstrate that we do know or experience the depth of that love. This is where an actual sight and looking upon the demonstration of God’s love for us is so desperately important. Are we filled with motivations to serve God and do the works of Christian religion because by them we find we will be accepted? Do not those of us who live this way still affirm God’s love for us? I believe that though we affirm God’s love, we do not know it well. God’s love appears as something beyond, unattainable, or outside of our daily experience and understanding. Or maybe we have (or the devil) made reasons why God cannot love us in our current state(3).
Here is where John Owen has helped me tremendously. His explanations and demonstrations of the love of God for us have painted a picture of God that i had seen very little and very small of before. Sitting through theology classes at Biola and hearing about God’s attributes of immutability, constancy, infiniteness, etc., were very fantastic to think about, but the actual experience of those attributes of God was something that was, in large part, left out of the discussion. Many believers know that God is infinite, that he has no end; there is no place where he is not. We can explain what it means (in some measure) for God to be infinite, yet to simply know he is infinite is like, what C.S. Lewis speaks about – the difference between someone telling you that honey is sweet and actually tasting honey and experiencing its sweetness.
Owen moves us into this subject by saying that,
“it is a duty wherein it is most evident that Christians are but little exercised, — namely, in holding immediate communion with the Father in love. Unacquaintedness with our mercies, our privileges, is our sin as well as our trouble. We hearken not to the voice of the Spirit which is given unto us, “that we may know the things that are freely bestowed on us of God.” This makes us go heavily, when we might rejoice; and to be weak, where we might be strong in the Lord. How few of the saints are experimentally acquainted with this privilege of holding immediate communion with the Father in love! With what anxious, doubtful thoughts do they look upon him! What fears, what questioning are there, of his good-will and kindness! At the best, many think there is no sweetness at all in him towards us, but what is purchased at the high price of the blood of Jesus. It is true, that alone is the way of communication; but the free fountain and spring of all is in the bosom of the Father. “Eternal life was with the Father, and is manifested unto us.” – ibid, pg 32
There are several things that Owen speaks about, which I would direct any to read for themselves, especially in Chapter 4 of Part I. I would like to paint those here if I can so that it will help us, because Owen does not write like we want to read – its very difficult, at best. He tells us that we must “eye the Father as love” (pg 32). Our problem is we feel that he is looking at us in a disappointed fashion (which is evident by our idolatry), but you must instead look on him “as one most kind and tender” (ibid). We cannot only see him in his “terrible majesty, severity, and greatness” – for who would want to come to a God that is only like this? – No one. If you would look on him in his long thoughts of kindness towards you, “your soul could not bear an hour’s absence from him; whereas now, perhaps, your soul cannot watch with him one hour” (ibid). Your heart must be filled with “breaking through all discouragements” to see his great love to you.
See Whose love it is – God is fully satisfied in himself – he does not need any other object to give him satisfaction. He is infinitely filled with delight and quiet pleasure to eternity, namely, in his Son. He doesn’t seek only his own eternal, infinite satisfaction, but he is also seeking your eternal, infinite satisfaction. (ibid)
See what kind of love it is.
1) It is eternal – the Father’s love “was fixed on us before the foundation of the world”, before he sent his Son, he loved us. He delights “in the thoughts of kindness and redemption for them” that he would accomplish in Christ. From eternity he has made a design for our eternal happiness. (pg 33) His love had no beginning, and it will have no end. This alone should cure us of our insecurities of his acceptance of us.
2) It is free – he loves us because he will – there was, there is nothing in us why he should love us. (ibid). He is not obligated to love you, he loves us because he himself is love.
3) It is unchangeable – “Though we change every day, yet his love does not”, his love is not altered by our things we do that anger him – he is infinitely patient with us.
4) It is distinguishing – He does not love the whole world this way, but his children – we are special, and unique in his sight. The world is filled with those who hate God; he chose in eternity past not pour out his love on them in the same way.
These are just, if I may say, a foretaste of the ways that the Father loves us. These alone, and any by themselves, should cure us of our fears of acceptance with God. Why should we trust in a mere duty to bring us to God when he has done everything in his power to bring us to him? Why should we fear whether he loves us or not based upon how well we pray, how often we read our bibles, how much time or money we give to the church and ministry? Is not God just as delighted in the least of his children, like the prodigal son, as he is in the greatest of his children, who have been with him the whole time (Luke 15:11ff)? Do you think your sin has cast God’s love for you away and he is now angry forever with you? “How unwilling is a child to come into the presence of an angry father!” (pg 35) He loves you so that you will come to him, so that you will trust him, not yourselves, not your ability to perform some duty. This is why David said “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it” – what the Father delights in is when his children come to him, open handed, empty, broken and in need, like the sinner in Luke 18 – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”. This is what David tells us “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
God delights to have you come to him, he delights when you come before him in repentance, seeking him because of his great love to you. Better that you see and experience that God loves you deeply and intensely even though you may struggle in your Christian duties, than to excel above anyone else in all Christian duties and think that God’s love to you is based on how well you perform.
(1) Of Communion with God, John Owen, pg. 22-23, 32ff
(2) ibid, pg 22-23
(3) ibid, pg 36-40