Have you started any new projects or hobbies in the last few years? If so, there was probably a clear starting point. Hopefully, we pray before engaging in something completely novel that will affect our lifestyles, finances, or homes, as opposed to impulsively jumping in. I am considering getting a dog to be a therapy pet. I’ve thought about it for over a year and praying for the last few months. This month I started a dog budget, inquired about the pet deposit for my apartment, and downloaded a couple of rescue pet locators to see the little breeds that are usually available. The more I prepare and pray, the more insight I have about a couple of my concerns. I vacillate between confidence and doubt, excitement and anxiety, with some confusion. The process reminds me of how Christian life unfolds—it’s not very clean, organized, or structured, but messy, mixed, and unpredictable. I love Old Testament accounts because they illustrate biblical principles in action, encouraging us in our haphazard Christian sanctification, and process of maturing. We all start growing from whatever point Christ calls us, whether it’s when we’re young or old, after life is well underway. All Christians conform to biblical principles, but not without struggling and wavering, unlearning some things as we acquire others. So far this year we have considered how God produces Christian fruit in us, through our salvation, for the benefit of others. It’s vital that we understand and embrace fruit-bearing as an essential, primary activity of lives lived for Jesus, albeit imperfectly and weakly. It’s also critical that we do so based primarily on love, the first fruit identified in Galatians 5:22-23. Love is our most excellent Christian quality, influencing all that we are and do as justified children of God, no matter where we are in the process. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Meditating on God’s love for us before considering how we love others is only sensible since his love always comes first. In Romans 5:1-11, Paul writes about our justification, salvation, reconciliation, faith, hope, character, endurance, reconciliation, salvation, all through God’s love. He makes it clear that God’s love is the thread that binds all these blessings together. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:5, 8) God’s love in our justification leads to God’s glory, joy in suffering, endurance, character, and hope (Romans 5:1-4). God’s love through the indwelling Spirit never fails (5:5). And, God’s love for us is manifested through Christ (5:8) when we were utterly undeserving and unloving. Christ justifies and gives us the Spirit who supplies our love for God and others. It is our hope in Christ, not in ourselves or our plans that supplies and increases our love.
Whether or not I decide to get a dog, my process of praying, thinking, budgeting, and praying some more will be the touchstone of my decision-making process and how I explain my choice to others. However, when I talk with others, especially non-pet owners, I am amazed at how many tell me, “Just go for it. Find a dog and do it.” I can see how it will turn out if I get tired of walking a dog, especially in the bad weather, and want to give up. But how many of us Christians think we should just love people more—just do it? This is a formula for failure, as we know by either having caused problems with good intentions or failing to do much at all. Instead, remembering how God’s love works in us gives us the assurance, because it is God’s process, not ours. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5) First, God justifies us by the faith he gives us. Then, because of his grace, we have joy because he has given us the sure hope of his glory. Because of his grace and love, we rejoice in our sufferings with the knowledge that they supply endurance, which then produces more godly character in us. All because the Spirit supplies our hearts with God’s abundant love. Even our difficulties and trials become blessings of strengthening because of God’s unfailing love. His grace, mercy, compassion, and holy sanctifying love is the reason we will never be ashamed—he never fails us.
Without God’s loving justification and indwelling Spirit, our love for God and others is not only limited but vastly inferior. Our view of our suffering is evidence of our justification and ability to love beyond our human efforts. James Boice writes on the benefits of suffering: “First, it produces perseverance…You may notice another word used to translate this idea in your Bible…patience…endurance, …[or] patient endurance…We express the idea positively when we say, ‘Hang in there, brother.” It is hanging in when the going gets tough, as it always does sooner or later…So here is one thing that separates the immature person from the mature one, the new Christian from one who has been in the Lord’s school longer. The new believer tries to avoid the difficulties and get out from under them. The experienced Christian is steady under fire and does not quit his post.” (1) God’s love through the indwelling Spirit never fails us; as our confidence in Christ increases, our love increases. “The revelation of divine love towards us is so abounding that it fills our hearts; and being thus spread through every part of them, it not only mitigates sorrow in adversities, but also, like a sweet seasoning, it renders tribulations to be loved by us.” (2) How else could Paul, who suffered so much for Christ write, “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind?” (Philippians 2:1-2)
Life is not sublime on earth, but God’s love is always heavenly. Living with a dog won’t be any more perfect than being without one. But the benefits may outweigh the costs—an analogy about God’s love, which is weightier than any crosses we bear as a result of our justification. It is my prayer that I will minister to my neighbors more lovingly, with or without a dog. And, it is my prayer that our contemplation of God’s steadfast, sure, eternal love will overpower our self-generated, weak attempts to be loving creatures in all our circumstances. After all, “…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Jesus didn’t expect us to love him before he saved us. We were unlovely. But now, “Isn’t it astounding that God should need to commend his love to us?…What a great, great love this is!…Karl Barth was in this country some years before his death, [when] someone asked a question at one of his question-and-answer sessions that went like this: ‘Dr. Barth, what is the greatest thought that has ever gone through your mind?’ The questioner probably expected some complicated and incomprehensible answer, as if Einstein were being asked to explain the theory of relativity. But after he had thought a long while, Barth replied by saying: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.’ This was a profound answer and a correct one. For there is nothing greater that any of us could think about or know than that Jesus loves us and has shown his love by dying in our place.” (3)
Hasn’t your justification led to joy in suffering? Haven’t you learned greater endurance, with a more godly character? How much more can we minister to others knowing that God’s love through the indwelling Spirit will never fail us? What might change in your love through God’s abundant, faithful love? What might you do differently? Since God’s love for us is manifested through Christ, how might we encourage each other more authentically through gospel-centered love? “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
(1) Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, Rom. 3-5, The benefits of Suffering, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
(2) Calvin, John, Calvin’s Commentary on (Passage), https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/romans-5.html
(3) Boice, James, Rom. 5:8, Ibid.
February 19, 2020