TLimS Week 7: 1 John 4
Today, I get to start writing about what has been most foundational and transformative in my encounter with the Lord as my shepherd: God as a provider for my emotional/relational needs. This is actually where I wanted to start with this series, but I had no idea how to begin, so I decided to start with some of the easier-to-explain aspects of God as our shepherd and then slowly move into more difficult ideas. I believe this is the most difficult-to-explain aspect of understanding God as our provider. I will most likely draw heavily on the writings of Henri Nouwen, my personal favorite spiritual writer of all time.
In this post, however, I don't think I will draw on Nouwen just yet, as I'd like to start with the topic of love. This is kind of a general topic to start with, as I want to later move on to more concrete subjects, like friendships and romantic relationships. But, as always, it's good to establish a foundation, as I am sure it will help me understand where I am going with all this :).
I think if there is anything the human race has learned about our existence, and anything that nearly all philosophers can agree on, it is that human beings are, at least in large part, relational beings. We, for whatever reason, need other people. We do not do well in isolation. Studies sad, twisted real-life circumstances have shown that babies who are only given physical nourishment do not survive without human contact. Children who become isolated from all other people, but kept alive, end up in a vegetative state--unable to communicate, think for themselves, and feel any emotion. If anything, these unfortunate real-life tragedies emphasize the sheer importance of understanding ourselves as relational beings.
We need people. So much so that our interactions with people shape the way we grow up, turn out, and end up. The Old Testament mentions the idea of generational sin (and generational blessings), where because of something someone did, not only does that person get punished/blessed, but their sons and daughters also get punished/blessed! I know a lot of people think this is some mystical, magical act of God punishing/blessing multiple generations to emphasize and magnify His impact, but I actually think this is more just referring to the natural state or reality of human nature.
No matter how hard we try, we turn out like our parents. We get the good, but we also get the bad. One of the most dysfunctional families in the Bible is a good illustration of this: David and Bathsheba, and their kids, Tamar, Amnon, and Absalom. I won't go through the whole story, but we're talking incest, betrayal, and siblicide. And the story doesn't seem to imply that God intervened to make this happen as a punishment to David. Instead, God predicted this would happen as a result of David's adultery and murder (of Bathsheba's husband). David's hubris and lust gets passed down to Amnon which creates dysfunction and conflict amongst his children. Hence, "generational sin."
I bring this up to emphasize just how important our interactions with people are--that they can influence, and even determine, the ways we become and act. Indeed, we truly need people, but not just any interaction with people. More specifically, we need love. If our interactions with people are full of betrayal, hate, distrust, neediness, and selfishness, then we will most likely become people full of betrayal, hate, distrust, neediness, and selfishness. And unfortunately, if we look at the sheer number of broken households and dysfunctional families in the world today, it doesn't look good for the human race.
But this is where God comes in. "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."
Re-read that passage in the context of this post. God provides a way out for our dysfunctional cycle. 1 John 4 is saying that because God loves us in the most perfect way (wholly and sacrificially and perfectly), this gets passed on to us. In the same way that we become like our parents, in both good and bad, because God parents us and loves us, we can learn to adopt His way of love in our life and let that take over our entire being so that we may wholly, sacrificially, and perfectly love ourselves and those around us. God's love breaks our dysfunctional cycle. He provides an alternative way. He provides what we need: perfect love.
Like most of America (perhaps the world), I grew up in a dysfunctional family [to be honest, I have only a small idea of what a functional family looks like... it's rare, and I've had the privilege to get a small glimpse of one just once in my life... it was beautiful and truly mind-blowing]. I won't go into too much detail of the dysfunctions... maybe they are typical of the Asian family, although I have no real way of knowing. In my family, I don't think I ever experienced the kind of love that God shows us--love that's sacrificial and full. At least at the time of my growing up, I couldn't see it or understand it (now, years later looking back, I can see how my parents sacrificed so much for me, and I see God in it, but I'm not sure I would be able to see it even now if it weren't for God showing me what to look for).
Going back to my very first post in this series, the time when I sought out God and met with Him every morning to see if He really could provide me with all I want and need, it was around that time that I also began to investigate and listen to God's voice. I guess meeting with Him in the mornings led to some serious spillover so that I really desired to know Him, talk to Him, and hear Him every moment regardless of what I was doing. I began to do the whole Brother Laurence thing (Practice of the Presence of God), where Brother Laurence would think about God while doing the dishes and seek an experience of Him in every place and every part of his daily life.
It started out with me mostly doing the talking and just praying to Him regardless of what I was doing. If I were doing my work or reading, I would talk to God about it before digging in. If I was doing dishes, I would thank Him or chat with Him about my process of soaping and rinsing. Soon, though, as I was doing meditation exercises in the mornings (as per my story in my first post), I began to really want to not just talk to Him, but to also hear Him and what God would say about my daily life. I started to hear God tell me, over and over, about His love for me. He would encourage me throughout the day, saying how proud He was of my discipline (even when I always felt that I lacked it) and how happy He was with the ways I would try to serve Him (even in failure).
God's love was real. It was audible. It was all around me. It filled me throughout the day. Reassured me of my insecurities. And as I got to know God more and more, reading His word, experiencing Him in my life, and learning from those older and wiser than I, I could more clearly see and hear God's voice and His love. I don't think I'll ever stop learning more and experiencing more of the depth, height, width, and length of God's love.
God's love is one of the most powerful ways that the Lord acts as our shepherd. He loves His sheep. He breaks our dysfunctional cycles and teaches us how to love--not by telling us what to do, but simply by loving us first (1 John 4). God's love is so complete and so needed in our lives, that the honest truth is, any life apart from God's love is... empty.
God provides for our emotional and relational needs by loving us. Next week, I'll talk more specifically and concretely of what this means for our friendships and relationships.