We most often love God in spite of ourselves. All people love someone or something. But we Christians go further, and claim that we love God and neighbor, "because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19). We love a spouse, our children, an old friend, or even a time-honored tradition or ritual because God first loved us “Jesus-much.” But to love God as God – as He wants to be preached, revealed, and worshipped – is often difficult for us and not only for an abstract reason.
Since the man and woman rebelled against God in the garden of Eden, love for God and our neighbor does not come naturally to us. As a consequence, even when we do muster up the enthusiasm to love God it's a love that conditions, limits, and brings God to heel. The force of our love is violent, even more so when directed toward our Creator. We can love God so long as it is in a Sunday morning Bible Study way, in a Small Catechism, classroom way. We love God so long as it is safe for us to love God. We love the Lord so long as He is kept safely in the pages of a book, or at a lectern, or in a pulpit.
We can put on a false show of devotion with our words, declaring for all to hear that we love God. But feelings are feelings, and we cannot hide from ourselves (or from true God). Our love has an expiration date. Our heart is as untamable as a wild monkey. No matter how much effort we dedicate to putting on a false-front for family and friends, when our love is dampened or dead, there is a gravity to it that drags us down into bitterness, resentment, and loathing. The gravity of a heart gone cold can even turn us from faith and hope in the salvific death of our Savior. How often have we Christians begged God to take crosses off us before we just give up altogether and abandon hope that Savior Jesus will rescue us from our struggle and affliction? How often have we thought to ourselves, "Does He even want to rescue me? Maybe I brought this on myself? I know I'm a sinner, but what have I done, Lord, to deserve this?"
But, the love of God in Jesus Christ never ends (1 Corinthians 13:8). So then, where is the problem for us? Why can't we Christians love God and neighbor as ourselves, with limitless, selfless adoration and love? The answer is simple, just not easy for us to swallow. We are sinner and righteous at the same time. This means outside of Christ Jesus, we are left to wonder where God is and what He is doing. Outside of the Savior, all our love is directed at the God who is hidden behind teen suicide, divorce, prescription medicine overdoses, and hurricanes. He is a God we, in the end, worship through gritted teeth. But concerning Christ, in the hearing of His promises and in the receiving of His gifts, we receive even our crosses as gift because they mean the old Adam is being put to death along with all his selfish, self-salvific schemes hoping to place him on God's throne.
What to talk about when we talk about Love
When our love grows cold, when we question God's motives, when we love God through gritted teeth, it is because we have turned away from where He wills to be preached, revealed, and worshipped in Christ Jesus. In the shadow of the Cross, we witness true, unconditional love: a love that is beyond all old Adam understanding. Jesus' love for us suffers itself to be rejected. That is what unconditional love in a Godly sense means. God loves us enough to be rejected by us, even executed by us.
Our love is conditional, measured, limited, qualified, and most of all, selfish. We can never imitate Jesus' example of unconditional love because we are not God. And although He is able to sympathize with us in every way – because He was tempted in every way just as we are – unlike us, He did not sin. All the works of our flesh are sin, says St. Paul. That means that even our love, as selfless as it may seem to us, is sin. We cannot love God as He first loved us. We cannot love our neighbor as ourselves. Only God's Word and Spirit can change our heart from a heart of stone to a fleshy heart that pumps the life-blood of Christ Jesus, the blood received at the Lord's Supper throughout our body. And even then, our old-Adam self fights with all the vigor of a poisoned man.
When we talk about love then, let us not talk about ourselves.
This is the Christian life in a nutshell. We love as we are loved, but we love selfishly, half-heartedly, impurely, conditionally, yet always comforted by the promise that even when "we are faithless He is faithful because He cannot deny Himself" (2 Timothy 2:13). We do not need to be ashamed of our failure to love God in the way of the Gospel as He loves us Jesus-much. If we could love God in-kind, we would not need a Savior like Jesus. Instead, we would require a life-coach who could offer helpful examples, recipes, and get-rich-quick schemes for loving God and neighbor that would never leave us feeling abandoned, betrayed, and hopeless.
We do not love rightly, not this side of the resurrection. We love selfishly, falsely, fearfully and insecurely. That is our fate as old Adam sinners. But we have a Savior who shed His blood on the cursed tree for us, even when we rejected His offer of life and eternal salvation. That is how God reveals Himself to be God for us, even in the midst of our struggles and afflictions, even when our love goes cold. That is His limitless love that sustains us even when crosses crush us. When we talk about love then, let us not talk about ourselves, or our relationships, our successes or failures at love, especially not how much we love God or have failed to love Him as He loves us. Instead, let us talk of Christ Jesus and His love which never exhausts itself, that never runs cold, never loses hope, never gives up pursuing us because He is our Savior, the man who is God, Jesus Christ.