Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us.
1 John 4:19
We love Him because He first loved us. This is the verse of my life. It boils down the essence of the gospel into eight little words, eight little words that changed the course of history and changed the course of my history. This verse explains life, gives life, and is the goal of my life. It continues to inform and transform my heart as I wrestle with and grasp its ideas.
Eight little words about love—His love—boil further down to one: first.
He first loved us.
He first loved.
He first loved us.
I had this all so terribly wrong for so terribly long that it makes me want to weep. Just eight words—that’s all I needed to get right—yet I colossally failed. I took those eight words, jumbled them up, and formed them into a nice, tidy formula in my head lacking any of the words’ original meaning: Love God and then He will love you back.
Somehow, it seemed an endless to-do list had been delivered first-class to my doorstep the second I recited the sinner’s prayer. Do not smoke. Do not chew. Do not go with those who do.
If there is anything I’m good at, it’s to-do lists. I make to-do lists for my to-do lists. A tingling feeling goes up my spine when I check-off a completed task. I even add things to my to-do lists that I have already accomplished solely for the jolt of pleasure I get when I put a delightful little checkmark next to a task.
I have discovered, however, that to-do lists and love do not go together. They are oil and water. After being a Christian for a few years, God’s to-do list kept growing like an unstoppable cancer. I imagined Him standing over me with a clipboard filled with an ever-expanding list of expectations. (Things are always more official seeming when a clipboard is involved.) “Read the Bible” became “Read the Bible everyday” and then “Read the Bible every day for 30 minutes before school or else.” I just knew if I could check off every item on the to-do list, I would be the model Christian, and God would pat me on the back, winking like jolly old Santa Claus as He whispered, “I’m so glad you’re on my team.” He would love me, really love me.
The formula—so tidy and pretty and clipboard official—didn’t work.
Because I tried to love Him first.
I got tired and worn out pretty quickly, but kept trying. I was like a prisoner sitting in a jail cell with the door swung wide open, refusing to leave because I was still working on getting released based on my good behavior.
I tried to attain His love. It is a weird and useless endeavor trying to attain something you already have. By definition, love is a gift. It can never be forced or demanded or earned. We cannot attain love because God is love and we cannot attain God. His love is gifted to us. Our job is to receive it, devour it, enjoy it, and delight in it. When we receive it, we put down our checklist of good works and are soothed in our souls, to the very core of who we are. And then we exclaim “Aha!” in complete understanding, pick up the good works God has made us for, and carry on with a completely different motivation for those good works.
We are wanted.
We are family members.
Fear no longer motivates us, because fear has been driven out by the overwhelming gift of God’s love. We become motivated by love, that we might love Him in response for the lavish love He has bestowed upon us. Certainly, we know our unworthiness of such a love, but we understand our unworthiness without any sense of fear. We know it, and it makes us glad because, like a diamond against a mute background, our unworthiness makes His love explode with more clarity.
When we know His love is first, that He loved us before we could do anything to earn it, our lives become a response of love. Instinctively, we fulfill the greatest commandments—to love God and to love others.
We love because He first loved us.
We put down the checklist.
By the Spirit, we love.
This post is actually an excerpt from the ebook, 31 Days of Love Letters: Searching Scripture for How God Loves, which I give away to anyone who subscribes to my blog. Oh, you didn't know? Yep, it's true. Find out more here if you haven't already gotten yours. Happy Friday!