God loves us. We know that for two reasons. The first reason we know He loves us is because He said so: “For God so loved the world…” This means He loves everyone, the whole world of human souls, past, present and future. The second reason we know He loves us is that He powerfully demonstrated that love in time and space: “that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” Paul writes, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) God doesn’t just say He loves us, although the fact God said it should be enough; He also showed that He loves us through an act of amazing, jaw-dropping humility and self-sacrifice: becoming one of us, even our servant who stooped to the lowest depths of shame and suffering in order to lift us up to Him.
God’s loving purpose is to save us from sin so that we might receive the gift of eternal life. This is not “works righteousness”. God doesn’t add up our good deeds to see if they are more than our misdeeds and then award us life in heaven if they are. Once we have surrendered to sin, and we all have done so from the earliest possible opportunity, God should have, on the basis of pure justice, nothing more to do with us for “what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14) But if God is ever to bring us “out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9) He must have fellowship with us, drawing near enough to us to save us. The coming of the Father to us in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ, was absolutely essential to make it morally and governmentally possible for Him to come to each one of us in the Person of His blessed Holy Spirit. So God strives with all of us to draw us to Himself by the inner work of the Holy Spirit through the mediation of His Son. The faith that saves us is one that surrenders to the Son, calling upon Him to set us free, a prayer which He is glad and very willing to answer
God’s love and mercy, therefore, abounds toward all of us, His fallen, sinful creatures. The problem is that we have free will. He cannot compel us to freely choose Him. He works day and night to convince and persuade us to give up sin and enter into that life of love which is God’s very nature. But we can rebuff and resist the work of God. The soul is a vast battlefield on any point of which ground may be lost or gained for God’s kingdom. In those matters and ways in which we fail to yield to God’s Spirit within us and ground is lost or remains in enemy hands, God may and often does exercise a degree of strategic retreat. He withdraws the influence of His Spirit and allows us to experience afresh what it means to be under enemy occupation. At first it may seem to us that this is pleasant. The battle has subsided. No longer does the bugle sound or the bombs burst. The tension of combat is over. We may not allow ourselves to say it, or even think it, but there is a feeling in us that we are due for a little “R&R” from the war. The problem is that we are taking our vacation on “Pleasure Island” a place of amusement made and managed by the enemy of our soul. All goes well for a season but then we notice our ears growing long and our voice beginning to break into a bray. With a start, we realize we are being turned into beasts of burden bound for the mines. (Consult Disney’s version of “Pinocchio” for references here.)
If we wake up and realize, once more, that serving ourselves is the worst form of slavery and that serving God is the highest form of freedom, we may finally acquire the motivation we need to break free and run back into the arms of our loving, heavenly Father. There, we rejoin the battle on God’s side, wiser and better for tasting for a season what it means to have God’s grace withdrawn. This pattern of God’s dealings with His children is found throughout the Bible. “The backslider in heart will have his fill of his own ways…” (Proverbs 14:14)
God often draws near to those who are backsliding away from Him in their hearts, seeking to bring them back through fresh manifestations of His goodness, whether through pleasant outward circumstances or feelings of God’s loving nearness. In such cases, the question of the Apostle Paul is appropriate to ask: “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4) We often mistake God’s goodness toward us as a sign of His approval of our attitude or course of conduct. That may not be so. Instead, He may be seeking to turn us back to Himself and His way by allowing us a little taste of His lovingkindness. But He also does the opposite, for the same reason. He gives us enough rope, not that we may perish but so that we may feel what it is like to choke a bit, spiritually speaking, and realize again how much better is God’s way. This is what may be called “God’s tough love.”
Recently, I was reading through the book of Isaiah and came across this passage: “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His mercy He redeemed them, and He lifted them and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; therefore He turned Himself to become their enemy, He fought against them. Then His people remembered the days of old, of Moses. Where is He who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of His flock? Where is He who put His Holy Spirit in the midst of them…” (63:9-11)
Just like the people of Israel, we believers have been redeemed out of spiritual Egypt but sadly, like them, we may also grow forgetful, rebel and grieve God’s Spirit which He made to dwell within us. When this happens, He may seem to become our enemy by allowing us to experience again what it was like to live without Him in order to bring us back to Him. Thank God for His “tough love”!