Author’s Note: I recently served on a jail ministry weekend called Residents Encounter Christ. During that time, I led music for a group of male residents at the Sumter County Jail. I was also responsible for one of the 13 20-minute “talks” that took place over the course of the weekend. My topic was “God is Love.” The following is that talk. The content is not intended for children and may be difficult to read. These are my memories and as such are intensely personal and subjective.
What is sweeter than love? Can you think of anything? What does that word, LOVE, even mean? What do you think about when you hear it? I don’t know about you, but when I think about love, my thoughts aren’t always sweet. For me, the idea of love has always been something that seemed unlikely or unattainable. The first love that any of us experience comes from our parents.
When my mom was a young girl, she grew up in a children’s home. Her mom was an alcoholic and married to a man who loved men. My mom and my Uncle, the youngest of the four children, were taken away and placed in the children’s home. After many years of horror and solitude in the system, she lived with her older sister and her sexual predator-former step-father-turned abusive husband. She hadn’t seen love in her lifetime, not really. She only knew neglect and secrets and shame. She sought escape and found it in the arms of a much older, recently divorced man.
After a short period of time, my mom learned she was pregnant at the age of 17. She was not in love, she didn’t know what love was, but she knew she didn’t have it. It was 1964, and the “right” thing to do was to marry, so five-months ripe with new life, she said “I do” in the back of a gas station. This was not the stuff of romance novels or fairy tales. On her wedding day, she didn’t feel love, she felt trapped. She tells me that she cried that day. Not tears of joy, but tears of resignation. What a sad way to start a new life! A short four months later, I was born and quickly followed by two more children in as many years. She didn’t have an example of what love was, so how could she love us? She did the best she knew, and it was worlds better than what she experienced. However the relationship that began poorly only got more strained as the years progressed.
My father was an alcoholic who was verbally abusive and after five years, my parents separated only to reunite when my mother became pregnant with their fourth child. Saying that my home life was volatile would be like saying the Titanic was just a boat. This was my introduction to love: Fighting, screaming, drunken rages, and physical beatings with a few moments of happiness and peace on the rare occasion. Oddly enough, I felt loved, but I also felt that it could just as easily go away – I felt that love had conditions – if you’re good, I’ll love you, If you’re not – I won’t.
As I got older, I learned about romantic love from watching TV and movies and reading books. Nothing I saw in my life was like what I saw or read. What I experienced was sexual abuse and perversion at the hands of babysitters, school mates and even family members. I felt the first flutters of romantic love with when I met my babysitter’s youngest son who was my age. It was sweet and innocent. But to add to the confusion, my sisters and I were constantly bombarded by sexual deviance while we were in their care. At the age of four I was sexually molested by the babysitter’s 18 year old son. So my earliest memories of love are wound up in fear and shame.
When my body changed early, the attention I got from my classmates and from older boys was terrifying to me. At a time in my life when I should have felt excited and exhilarated by attention from the opposite sex, I was paralyzed. The wolf whistles and flirting didn’t feel innocent to me – it seemed menacing because it brought back feelings of fear from my past. What I learned about love between a man and a woman was confusing. I wanted what I saw on TV, but what I saw in my life and in my house was ugly and perverse. So I turned to another kind of love.
I loved food. I learned to use food as a shield, literally. I locked away the body that caused so much trouble to me. I loved music. I turned to music to escape the reality of a troubled home life. I loved church for the same reason. It was an escape. But the escape was only temporary. The food that had served so well to protect me from the unwanted advances of creepy guys eventually became a prison. The music that I loved always ended. And the escape I found in church was short lived, because sooner or later I had to go home. Sooner or later, the concert was over. Sooner or later, I wanted to be attractive and have a guy’s attention. All the types of love I knew were similar in one way – they were all TEMPORARY.
When I was 12, I learned about a different kind of love. Not the love between a parent and child, not the love between a man and a woman, and not the love of a thing. What I learned about was an emotion that had no limits, no boundaries and no conditions. I learned about the love that God had for me, a sexually abused, overweight, dysfunctional kid. Even though I had been going to church for six years, I still didn’t know the whole story. I went to a retreat, kind of like you are on this weekend. While there, I heard about the ultimate example of love.
I learned that I had done things that made God unhappy. I was what the church people called a sinner. You see, even though I had been on the receiving end of some really bad behavior, I had been hateful and I had wished that my mom would die. That was a sin. I learned that sin has a price. When you sin, you earn separation from God. You earn death. So far, I was familiar with this. It sounded like conditions again. But this is where things really turned around because the story didn’t stop there. In my world, that would be the end, but with God, He loved me so much that even though I had done something wrong, He wanted to give me a gift . . . the gift of a life with Him. God loved me so much that while I was in the middle of my worst behavior, God sent his Son to pay what I owed.
Allow me to share a story from my life. I was driving one day when I noticed that I needed gas. I pulled into a convenience store and filled up my tank. When I went to pay, my debit card wouldn’t work. I didn’t have any cash. I didn’t have a checkbook. I had no way to pay for the gas that was in my tank. I was in trouble. Out of nowhere, this woman came up and said, “I’ll pay for it.” I didn’t know her. I had never seen her before or since. She didn’t know me, she didn’t get any gas, she had no reason to do what she did. But she paid what I owed and she didn’t want anything in return. That is Love. To me, that was huge, but what God did for us is so much bigger than that. He gave his LIFE!! Let me summarize a section from the Bible in 1John 4:7-11, 16
Love comes from God. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God. 11My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other.
God is love – 1John 4:16 – We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.
All of this begs the questions:
• What is your idea of God?
When I was a kid, I thought about God as some old guy with long white hair and a flowing beard sitting up in the clouds. He wasn’t really REAL. He might as well have been Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, but more sinister. I thought He was judgmental and out of reach. I thought I had to DO something or BE someone other than what I was. I wasn’t good enough. That’s what I learned growing up in my house. I learned that if I wanted to be loved, I had better toe the line! But what I found out about God is that He doesn’t love like that. He loves me completely, not because of something I do or don’t do. In fact, I learned that even when I was in the middle of doing the worst things in my life, God loved me so much he was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for me. He sent His son, Jesus, to show me just how much He loves me.
• Is Christ worth encountering?
Yes! When you really get to know who God is and what Jesus did for you, you won’t see Him as some far away, untouchable, cloud-potato. He’ll be real and relevant to you. And you’ll finally know what it means to love and to BE loved.
• When I was growing up, I was always in fear that I was going to get in trouble. I was painfully aware that if I did something my parents didn’t like, I was gonna get it. I was going to be spanked or yelled at or I would have something taken away, or the worst was that I would feel that I had let them down. I wanted to please my parents, but the bar for pleasing them was always moving. My first thoughts about God were tangled up in that same idea. I thought He was like a policeman who was setting a trap for me, and just waiting for me to mess up so he could lower the boom. But that’s not who God is.
• God wants us to be real with Him. He desires a relationship with us. That sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. In the book of Acts, Paul is talking to some people in Athens and says it this way:
22 “. . . I see that you are very religious. 23 I was walking along and I saw all your churches, and one of your altars had this saying carved into it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ Well, this God, the One you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.
24 “He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, 25 and he doesn’t need humans to serve him—for he has no needs. He is the one who gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need.
27 “His wants us to look for Him. He wants us to feel our way toward him and find him—even though he is not far from any one of us. 28 He’s the one who gives us life and movement and our very breath! We wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Him! Since we are God’s children, we must not think that he is like an idol made out of gold or silver or stone. He isn’t like anything that humans have thought up and made.
The love that I experience from God is real. I may not be able to touch Him, but I can feel the love that He gives me. At the age of 12, I finally saw that God wanted to give me a gift that I didn’t deserve, and I accepted it. I took Him at his word, and I believed that He meant what He said. Since then, I feel accepted. I am finally comfortable in my own skin. God uses His words through the Bible to tell me how special I am to Him and how much He loves me. He uses other believers to show me His love and compassion. He knows just what I need to feel loved.
He knows just what YOU need to feel loved. Every one of us is unique and special in God’s eyes. He knows that I need to hear that I’m needed and useful, so He puts people in my life who tell me just that. He’ll do that for you, too.
• As you grow closer to God, what you know about Him changes. Just like somebody that you’ve known for a long time, you learn more about them, and our knowledge of God is always unfolding and growing. When I was younger, I thought about God like the Father figure that I didn’t have at home. I couldn’t talk to my dad, but I told God everything. I was afraid of my father, but I always felt safe with God. When I needed something, I couldn’t go to my daddy for help, but I knew that God would take care of me. As an adult, and as a woman, my relationship with God has changed. I don’t see Him as a Father as much anymore. The Bible describes the relationship between God and His people in terms of a marriage. And that’s more what I have now with God. We have a much more intimate relationship that only comes from years of knowing each other. I’m not always going to Him and asking for things, now I’m totally enamored. It’s a more mature love. He’s not the old guy in the clouds anymore, out of reach, out of touch and out of sync. He is real and close, concerned and caring.
• The way to know God is through Christ. Luke 10:22 – My Father has given me everything, and he is the only one who knows the Son. The only one who really knows the Father is the Son. But the Son wants to tell others about the Father, so that they can know him too.
The Love that God gives isn’t like human love. Human love is selfish and jealous, but when you know what it’s like to be loved by God, you will want to share it with others. Jesus said it best with a story about loving your neighbor.
Luke 10:25-37 (The Message)
25Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”
26He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”
27He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”
28″Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”
29Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”
30-32Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest (or we could call him a preacher) was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man (let’s call him a church member) showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
33-35″A Samaritan traveling the road came on him (this guy is like a tatted up biker dude). When the biker dude saw how bad off the guy got beat down, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey (er, Harley), led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’
36″What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?” 37″The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded. Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”
This isn’t a one-time deal. Another time in the Bible we see that God showed he Loved people by feeding them when they were hungry. He saw what they needed and He gave it to them, all four thousand of them!
Mark 8:1-9 (The Message)
1-3 (Jesus) found himself with a hungry crowd on his hands. He called his disciples together and said, “This crowd is breaking my heart. They have stuck with me for three days, and now they have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they’ll faint along the way—some of them have come a long distance.”
4His disciples responded, “What do you expect us to do about it? Buy food out here in the desert?”
5He asked, “How much bread do you have?”
“Seven loaves,” they said.
6-10So Jesus told the crowd to sit down on the ground. After giving thanks, he took the seven bread loaves, broke them into pieces, and gave them to his disciples so they could hand them out to the crowd. They also had a few fish. He pronounced a blessing over the fish and told his disciples to hand them out as well. The crowd ate its fill. Seven sacks of leftovers were collected. There were well over four thousand at the meal. Then he sent them home. He himself went straight to the boat with his disciples and set out for Dalmanoutha.
So now, what? What do we do with all this new knowledge? How are we supposed to respond?
Matthew 7:7-8 (The Message)
7-11″Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?
• Turn toward God in prayer and love. We just learned about prayer from the speaker before me. Praying to God is just like talking to your buddy. You don’t need any special skills or tools. Just talk to Him. Tell Him what you need. Tell Him what you want. Tell Him what you’re thinking and feeling. And every once in a while, be quiet and let Him talk to you.
• Don’t isolate yourself. God put us on this earth surrounded by other people. That is no accident. We were created to be social. Get with other people who know and love God and lean on each other for support.
• And finally, share what you’ve learned. Just like that lady did with me at the Gas Station. She saw I had I need that I couldn’t take care of on my own. She stepped in and shared with me. That is the heart of the story.
The Most Important Commandment Matthew 22:34-40
34After Jesus had made the Sadducees look foolish, the Pharisees heard about it and got together. 35One of them was an expert in the Jewish Law. So he tried to test Jesus by asking, 36″Teacher, what is the most important commandment in the Law?” 37Jesus answered: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. 38This is the first and most important commandment. 39The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, “Love others as much as you love yourself.” 40All the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets [a] are based on these two commandments.
The ideas I had about love were anything but sweet for a long time. Even though I first learned about God’s love at the age of 12, I learn more every day. With each year that passes, I have more opportunity to experience the depth of the love that God has for me and for others. The reason I’m here is share what I’ve got with you. This weekend, I hope that you will embrace the love that God has for you. That you will take Him at His word and trust Him. The scars from your past and from my past don’t magically disappear. One of the best parts of knowing that God is Love is what it does to other areas of your life. The ideas I had about love as a child have been transformed and so have the relationships of my past. That’s one of the side effects of loving and being loved by God. I still have rough times – I still struggle with intimacy and with food. You will struggle, too. The Love of God is always bigger than we can comprehend and takes a lifetime to learn. I know it’s not always easy, but it is ALWAYS worth it.