December 27th, 2010

Every act of love makes God more believable. 

1 John 4:14-15

December 26, 2010

Great question

A couple of weeks ago I walked into the Fellowship Hall on a Wednesday night after Confirmation.  I usually try to grab a little something to eat while catching up with a few folks, then head to my office and finish up some correspondence before heading to choir, usually a little late.

The particular Wednesday was the last one before the Christmas break – the final Confirmation class, the last Wednesday night meal at church, the final choir practice before Candlelighting.  When I came into the Fellowship Hall, one of my Confirmands asked me if we could talk.  I have to admit in such situations I’m not much of a “people person.”  I have things to check off my “to do list”.

            My first instinct was to see if we could put off the conversation.  He seemed rather persistent, so we went to my office.  There he said something like, “Pastor Bob, I just don’t get prayer.  I talk to God, but he never talks back.  Sometimes God doesn’t seem very real to me.”

Confirmands don’t initiate such conversations very often, so after the wave of guilt passed over me for coming so close to dismissing him, we talked for about 30 minutes.  I told him that the question he was asking is a common one even for adults.

Over the past few days I’ve been reading Philip Yancey’s new book, What Good is God?  It’s a collection of his speeches, given in various contexts where it would be most obvious to question God – at Virginia Tech after a South Korean student shot more than thirty fellow students, among alcoholics and prostitutes, at Mumbai after a terrorist blast, in China where Christians have been persecuted for generations, at a Bible college where the same experience that liberates and teaches some students causes others (like Yancey) to ask more questions – if not about God at least about his church. 

Believe me, my young friend is not alone.  I told him I didn’t know if it would help or not, but I’ve never heard God talk back to me either.  I have a lot of unanswered questions about God.  But believing is not about seeing or hearing.  At least not for everyone.

This Christmas we have been looking for Christmas in unexpected places.  I found Christmas in this Confirmand’s question.  He pointed me unintentionally to 1 John 4.

God’s love languages

In 1988 Gary Smalley first published a book that has been for many people a guide to relationships.  Smalley says that there are five “love languages,” and it helps to know which one is primary for the person or people you love.  The five love languages are Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch.  If I know which one of those says “love” to my wife, I can focus my attention on loving her in the way that makes her feel loved the most.

My young friend’s love language is apparently Words of Affirmation.  He does like to talk, I can tell you that.  He wanted a face to face conversation with me.  Words matter to him.  I suspect at home he wants his parents and grandparents to respond to him with words.  He likes to talk.  He likes them to talk back.  He wants to hear them say, “I hear you.  Here’s what I think.  I love you.”  He wants that from God too.

It’s not difficult to see that John, Jesus’ best friend, had an approach similar to the five love languages in his first letter.  This is an unexpected place to find Christmas, because it has nothing to do with the manger or shepherds or the wise men.

John begins this letter by saying, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).  He’s saying if your love language is Physical Touch or Quality Time, God has communicated in your love language.

You may say, “OK, that’s good enough for John, but that was, like, 2000 years ago.  And I’m not John.”  I’ll come back to that, but for now…just know that God knows we human beings need close contact.  And he came to us.  That’s the message of Christmas.

John insists this message is essential to the Christian gospel in 1 John 4:2-3, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.”  This is where the Christian faith is not only unique (it’s not “just another religion”), it risks being offensive.  The incarnation is not optional, like “That’s what we believe about God but it’s OK if your religion believes there’s another way.”

What John does with the rest of the chapter is to show us that God’s love languages have to be communicated through us.  This is John’s version of the “love chapter.”  You know about Paul’s version in 1 Corinthians 13: If I speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am nothing.  Love is patient, kind, etc.

John’s love chapter is different in several ways.  First, it relates our love more directly to God’s love.  “We love because he first loved us,” John says in verse 19. 

Second, John insists that if we don’t love as God does, we betray that our faith is phony.  He’s not afraid to use the “L” word:  If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both” (vv. 20-21, The Message).

Listen to how John’s language seems to parallel Gary Smalley’s love languages.

Physical Touch.  “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his only Son into the world” (v. 9).

Acts of Service.  “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (v. 10).

Quality Time.  “No one has ever seen God; but if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (v. 12).

Receiving Gifts.  “We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (v. 13).

Words of Affirmation.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” (v. 14).

I’m not sure any of that fully answers my young friend’s question.  I don’t know if there is an answer that would completely satisfy him – or maybe even you.  For whatever reason, and this is the part I don’t fully grasp, God doesn’t think that we all need to have the same experience of him.  John saw Jesus in person.  I didn’t.  God talked back to Moses.  He doesn’t talk to me.

To put the shoe on the other foot, I feel like I have many more reasons to believe than most.  If you want to talk about blessings in terms of material things or opportunities or loving and being loved or physical health for me and my family, God has been very good to me.  I would be very ungrateful not to believe.

But saying so raises all those situations that Philip Yancey discusses.  What about victims of violence or those beyond the reach of the church or those caught in legalistic Christianity to the point of making the message seem suspect?  Why don’t they get a “fair chance” to believe?  Why, as the writer of Hebrews says, is faith about “the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)?  Why can’t we see?

I don’t know.  But John puts that responsibility squarely on your shoulders and mine.  He reminds us that the Savior of the world loves through you and me.  If we don’t love, we show he hasn’t saved us.  By love he means God’s kind of love – the patient, forgiving, sacrificing, giving, touching love that drives out fear.  The kind of love that loves unilaterally without expecting love in return.  The kind of love that causes those around us to exclaim, “That’s what God’s love must look like!” 

Every act of love makes God more believable.  Every self-serving word or deed makes him more distant.

Hints of God

Here’s one example shared by Jack Popjes, a missionary in Brazil translating the Bible for a remote village among the Canela Indians.  Jack has lived there long enough to be “adopted” by one village.  When the village became crowded, the leaders decided to send some of their people to start a new village.  Jack’s “younger brother” became chief of the new village.

Soon, however, the two villages became rivals, competing for the most people.  Gossip and hatred were on the rise.  Finally the chief of the new village sent a letter to the old village leaders, including Jack, saying, “We hate you, we reject you, and we never want to see your faces in our village again!”  The note hurt.  Jack had been good friends with the new village chief.

Jack and his wife Jo prayed about what to do, and then wrote the following note –

Dear younger brother chief,  We received your note and read it and it seems that you hate us and reject us and never want to see us again.  We don’t know why you feel that way.  Maybe someone lied to you about us.  We want to remind you that we are of Jesus’ group and, therefore, we don’t hate you back nor do we reject you.  Instead we love you now and always will.  To prove that we love you, we are sending twenty litres of lamp oil and thirty kilos of salt for you to distribute to all the people in the new village.  Your older brother.


To his surprise, Jack’s own friends in the old village turned on him.  “Why did you send them gifts?  Don’t they hate us all?  That’s fine. We hate them back. We don’t need them.  Why didn’t you just let them sit out there in the dark without lamp oil? Let them eat tasteless food. They hate and reject us? Fine, we’ll hate and reject them!”


Jack patiently explained that the way of Jesus is to turn the other cheek and love our enemies.  The old village leaders were not convinced, but they softened a little and said, “Well, at least maybe they will feel ashamed of themselves.”

Two days later the reply came from the new village chief:  “We’ve changed our mind. We don’t hate you, and we want to make peace.  You can come to our village any time you want.”


Such acts of grace are like a white Christmas.  I’ve always “believed” in a white Christmas, but I’ve never seen one until yesterday – at least not like this one.  You and I who have seen this will be telling people about it for years.  We saw it.  We experienced it.  We touched it.  We will ask others to believe based on our testimony.  Forty years from now when our children and grandchildren say they don’t believe a white Christmas can happen because they’ve never seen one, we will tell them about today.

But why do we have to wait for moments like that?  Why doesn’t God show up at the time we need him, when we’re in the midst of asking questions?  Why can’t my young friend hear God’s voice when he prays most sincerely?  Probably because that would make God no more than a genie, put God under our control.  It would only reinforce what’s so destructive – our sense of being the center of the universe, of having the world revolve around us.

Instead God gives us hints of himself – hints in acts of love given and received, hints in the beauty of our world.  He also gives us the testimony of others who have experienced his presence in very real ways. 

Those testimonies could be in the Bible, like the witness of John.  But some experiences are more present and personal, like the following e-mail I received from one of our members this week.  She shared with about a dream she had.

I was looking for my son back in my home town, who was killed in an auto accident in 1983 when he was a toddler.  I found him at a cousin’s place a few months older than his age, like 2 or 3 yrs old. He was all dressed up in a red and white suit for Christmas, and this lady brought him to me at the door when I knocked to see him.


In my heart, I felt like I had abandoned him for a while, only it had been just a couple of weeks, and upon seeing him in the lady’s arms, I said: ‘Hey Daniel, it’s your Mommy!’ I reached out to hold him, which he immediately accepted and said “Mommy!”  Then making a silly face he added “Where’ve you been Mommy, where’ve you been?’ He clung to me so hard, I started crying and just held him there for a few seconds then I woke up. Boy, did that embrace feel real!


I bounced out of bed, shaken but in a good way.  I immediately thought of God’s grace, for keeping my son in heaven for me to see (and hopefully hold) again! I felt overwhelmed with joy, that even if I forget to think about him because it has been so many years now, God doesn’t forget and His promises endure!

Right after thanking God for this dream and its inspiring effect, I immediately thought of Jesus Christ.  As he dies on the cross, He says: Father, why have you abandoned me? Jesus then suffers from that separation from His OWN father! He was reconciled through the resurrection, and is ALIVE in presence of His Father once again.


If Jesus, after suffering death, became alive to be with his own daddy, how much more are we, redeemed through his blood, being reconciled to HIM, our Father in Heaven, and furthermore, will be with the ones we love that are waiting there in Heaven!?!  Wow, maybe I’m just over-reacting here, but this is a great feeling of Hope, Love and Comfort, as I have rarely experienced it in like 10 minutes or so! Praise the Lord for all His power and might, that we, such limited earthly human creatures, have a shared glory that one day we will be with the Eternal God, maker of heaven and earth!


Have a great Christmas! The gift of Jesus keeps on giving….. how true this is, even in the death of our loved ones.


I don’t have to have God at my beck and call to believe.  I can believe vicariously through the witness of others, like this sister in Christ or like John the Apostle.  Maybe my words of affirmation or quality time with God will come, and maybe not.  But I can see him and hear him through the testimony of others, and through words and acts of love that only he can inspire.


That’s enough for me to proclaim that he is come, and that he is the Savior of the world.  Amen.

One Response to Savior of the World »

Leave a Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.