The Christian life is a journey of growing in greater reliance on the love of God. In 1 John 4 we have one of the clearest definitions of God’s love found anywhere in the Bible.
It is the good news of how God sent his Son into the world to offer his life as an “atoning sacrifice” or “propitiation” for our sins. The Greek word is hilasmos, which means that when Jesus died on the cross he took the judgment for our sins.
This means all our sins — past, present, and future.
If you are a Christian, God’s wrath (his perfect and holy reaction to your sin and evil) has been exhausted upon Jesus. Now God will never be to you a demanding Judge who punishes, only a loving Father who disciplines.
Those most alive to this love of God learn to rely on it to meet the demands of loving others well. We see it not as a chore, but as an honor and thrill, that God’s love is made complete in us as we, in turn, love others.
But what can we do to know God’s love? And what can we do to truly rely on it?
The Difference Between Theoretical Knowledge and Personal Reliance
Years ago, I was in a critical season. I was tired, conflicted, and angry. The juxtaposed whirlwinds of ministry and marriage had overwhelmed me.
If I could have supported my family in any other way, I would have left vocational ministry.
But at that critical time, Jack Miller, the founder of Serge, and my spiritual father, powerfully modeled the difference between theoretical knowledge and personal reliance on God’s love.
Theological insight is important, and appreciation for God’s love is quite nice, but reliance is how a believer lives.
Reliance is the language of helplessness, risk, and trust. And if our Father’s love is for those who are bankrupt and hopeless, I qualified.
Jack Miller had lived the story of desperation long before me. Along with suffering a heart attack as a missionary in Uganda, he’d had a grapefruit-sized tumor in his abdomen and a live-in, schizophrenic mother-in-law. He had learned honesty, vulnerability, and joy amid suffering. He was able to model these to me, and it was instrumental in helping me own my desperation.
I came to see that if there were one more beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount, it might very well be, “Blessed are the desperate, for only they can learn to rely on the love of God.”
Of course, I had long known that reliance was important in becoming a Christian. I had started my walk with Jesus responding to a helpful, but insufficient, illustration of the Christian life. Perhaps you’ve heard it. It goes something like this:
How can we experience God’s love for us in the gospel?
It’s like a highwire walker pushing a wheelbarrow across the rushing waters of Niagara Falls. We watch and admire his skill as he traverses across and back.
But loud applause turns to quiet pause when then he turns and asks, “Who will get in the wheelbarrow and let me take you across?”
Think of Jesus as the highwire walker, and the wheelbarrow as your act of faith.
Will you trust Jesus to carry you from this world to the next? Will you get into the wheelbarrow?
That metaphor worked on me, and I “got into the wheelbarrow” and became a believer on March 7, 1968. Now, I have nothing but appreciation for the person who shared this illustration with me, and it’s true that only Jesus can carry us from this world into the next.
But perhaps a more accurate metaphor for becoming a Christian is a graveyard with us laying stone-cold dead in our caskets. How will we get out of that predicament?
Our need isn’t merely to get from point A to point B—from earth to heaven—but from death to life.
“Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4–5). Those who God saves by his grace are freed from their fear of death and have heaven as their secure inheritance.
But even more, I had to learn that reliance on Jesus isn’t just about the beginning and end of the Christian life. It’s for every day, dilemma, and demand in between. It’s about being a Christian.
God’s love for us in Jesus takes on our wounds, enslavements, and idols.
As John tells us, it expels fear.
It also compels change.
Through the Spirit’s work and my Father’s pursuit, I have come to realize I’m not as free, whole, or healthy as God intends. I’ve needed more than a wheelbarrow ride.
I need the spiritual power of resurrection, a perfect Father, and a tenacious Savior.
Perhaps you noticed that I just referred to the whole Trinity. That’s how needy I am, and how generous God is in the gospel.
His love has proven reliance – worthy for my greatest needs, hardest seasons, and biggest hurts.
Here is a partial list:
- From the start, I needed a new heart, complete forgiveness, and a perfect righteousness — needs met by the gospel the very nanosecond we come to faith in Christ. Until we see these three as our core needs, Jesus might feel important to us but not necessary and beautiful.
- I entered marriage emotionally frozen and “intimacy-deficient,” as one of my counselors put it. Growth in God’s grace, and reliance on his love, have freed me to get the help I need and learn to live from my heart. My marriage has never been healthier, and I actually walk very deeply with friends, not just superficially with reams of acquaintances.
- I suffered a major season of burnout and depression from ministry, and a significant aftershock. In his kindness, God met me at the intersection of my despair, hopelessness, and loneliness. The more we are alive to God’s love, the less we look to our jobs, success, and people to fill us up.
- I resisted processing the childhood trauma of sexual abuse, and the death of my mom when I was eleven until I was age fifty. By “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3), I have experienced much healing from my shame and from my inability and unwillingness to grieve my mom’s death.
These are a few of my more painful, challenging stories. But we all have needs for which only the God of love and the love of God are sufficient.
What about you? God uses a variety of moments, messes, and mentors to deepen our reliance on his love.
What moments, messes, or mentors has God used in your life to deepen your reliance on him?
What hurts or fears are you still trying to handle on your own or avoid addressing?
How could you rely on God instead?