"For God so loved the world" may be the most well-known and oft memorized verse of scripture ever. And rightly so. It summarizes the heart of the Christian gospel, the good news that God's passionate love is revealed in the presence of Christ. I came across an article last week, of which the title alone caused me to think afresh about the nature of God's love for us. The article was called, "God Desires You far More than You Desire Him," and it got me to thinking: We know God loves us, but how often do we remember that he also desires us?
God's Desire for Us
The word "love" has come to mean different things to different people. From sports to books and food to friends, we "love" all sorts of things. People fall in "love" and out of "love". I remember once hearing a comedian point out that you have to love your family, but you don't have to like them. Everyone knows that we don't mean the same thing in each instance. We also know that none of these examples really get at what scripture means when it speaks of God's "love" for us. This whirlwind of contemporary meanings and uses makes it difficult sometimes to reflect on the profound reality of God's love for us, which means we sometimes need fresh language to energize our understanding of God's self-revelation.
That's why I like the word "desire". It's a word that gets at a person's deepest motivations and longings. We do what we desire most to do, for good or ill. The language of desire communicates something about our affections and our passions. I find it a helpful term when I reflect on John 3:16 and the surrounding verses. You don't give your only son for people that you love in the same way you love a slice of pizza. You don't descend from heaven for people that you might fall out of love with. You do those things because they are motivated by desires that are at the heart of your identity.
Desire and Descent
In John's gospel, this self-giving desire of God for us is understood in terms of incarnation and crucifixion. If we read John 3:16 closely, we will find that the love of God is the cause that results in the incarnation and the crucifixion. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has descended from heaven and that he will be lifted up (on the cross) for the purpose of granting eternal life to those who believe. John wants his readers to know that these two events (and everything in between) are the demonstration of God's desire to rescue the world from perishing. The birth of Christ and the death of Christ are the revelation and demonstration of the desire of the triune God for us, a desire that is infinite in intensity and stronger than we can possible conceive or imagine.
Desire and Disbelief
That God so desires us is striking. What is even more striking is that he desires us despite our disbelief. Whether they are the words of Jesus or the narrator's commentary, the following verses make this point: Jesus comes not to condemn the world, but to a world that is condemned already (3:18). He came to a world lost in the darkness of unbelief, "He came to his own, but his own did not receive him" (John 1:11). Remarkably, Jesus doesn't look at the unbelieving world and say with arms crossed and face scowled, "You'll get what's coming to you." To the contrary, he descends to us in order to take up our humanity, redeem it, and provide a way to escape the condemnation under which we naturally stand. He desires us despite our disbelief.
Desire and Darkness
Most of us don't think of ourselves as those who desire darkness, but John likes to paint things in stark contrast to make a strong point. So, for John, there is light and there is dark. Jesus is light. Everything else is dark. We do well to indulge the gospel writer and do a little diagnostic self-analysis. Are there times when we choose to walk away from the light of Christ and toward darkness. What about when we go all day (or multiple days) without taking time to engage in private worship? Are we desiring light or darkness? What about intentionally harmful words to a spouse or unnecessarily harsh attitudes towards our children? Are we choosing light or darkness? A little white lie? Light or darkness? Derogatory comments about our boss behind his or her back? You get the picture. Sometimes diagnostics can be a little depressing. Thanks be to God that at the heart of the good news is the truth that God's desire for us does not depend on how much we desire him. To borrow the language of the creed, Christ came down from heaven for us and for our salvation, and he did it not because we desired him but because we didn't.
Desire and Worship
One of the most common questions I've received since the start of my pastoral ministry is this: If God knew that human beings would sin and bring all this hurt and pain and brokenness and damage into the world, why did he still choose to create the world with us in it? It's a hard question, but I think we can get toward an answer by reflecting on the depth of God's desire for us. To do so we need to remember that the cross is not Plan B. Our sin did not take God by surprise; he was not wringing his hands in desperation wondering what to do next. No, when God chose to bring the world into existence, he did so with the full knowledge that he would take on human flesh and die a gruesome death to atone for our sin and reconcile us to himself. And he still chose to to make the world. And he still chose to make us.
We always do what we most desire. Apparently, God desires us more than he desires avoiding the exceeding pain of a whip on his back, thorns in his brow, nails in his wrists, and the weight of the world's sin on his shoulders. A friend and colleague recently observed that when we begin to realize that, the only thing to do is to worship him and give ourselves to him for whatever he wants. God's desire for us gives birth to our desire for him.