Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Love Of God

Hello there, friends! I haven't posted in a month, sorry about that--it has taken some time to get settled into a new state and a new life. My branch president asked me to give a talk in church last Sunday, and I thought I'd post it here. It's long, I know--he wanted me to speak for 20 minutes, though I don't think I took quite that long. Attentive readers will notice that I used a few sentences from previous blog entries. Finally, since I believe in being very prepared but not in reading a talk verbatim, this is only approximately what I said:

Shortly after Nephi and his family left Jerusalem, Nephi saw in vision many events that would occur throughout the earth's history. In speaking about the birth of Jesus Christ, the angel asked Nephi, "Knowest thou the condescension of God?" (1 Nephi 11:16). Nephi's answer was both revealing and inspiring. "I know that [God] loveth his children," he answered, "nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things" (v. 17).

Brothers and sisters, we live in a confused and confusing world. Our lives are filled with uncertainties. Things that happen to us and those we love are hard to understand. At times we wonder where we fit into God's plan. Like Nephi, we do not know the meaning of all things. But of one thing we can be sure--we know that God loves His children.

The Lord demonstrates His love for us in the big things and the small, in the majestic and the mundane. As Alma told Korihor, "all things denote there is a God, yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator" (Alma 30:44). The majesty of mountain ranges and the delicate beauty of a hummingbird in flight teach us that God loves His children enough to care about the details, enough to create a beautiful world for His children to inhabit.

The Lord loves us enough to give us the gospel. He loves us enough to answer our prayers. The Lord gives us commandments to keep us safe and happy. As the primary song tells us, he "has given me an earthly home, with parents kind and dear."

All of these things are important. But ultimately, they pale in importance. As Alma told the people of Gideon, "ye look forward for the remission of your sins...which is to come. For behold...there be many things to come; and behold, there is one thing which is of more importance than they all--for behold, the time is not far distant that the Redeemer liveth and cometh among his people" (Alma 7:6-7). Joseph Smith told the Saints that "the fundamental principles of our religion are the testimonies of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ: that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day and ascended into heaven, and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it” (History of the Church, 3:30). In other words, everything else having to do with our religion--tithing, food storage, eternal families, missionary work, the word of wisdom--all these things are of secondary importance when we consider the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This singular event in human history--the birth, life, and death of the Firstborn Son of God--is the most compelling demonstration of God's love for us. John the Beloved wrote, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent...His Son into the world...that the world through Him might be saved" (John 3:16-17). The angel in Nephi's vision equated the coming of the Son of God with the tree of life, which is a representation of "the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things...yea, and the most joyous to the soul" (1 Nephi 11:22-23).

The thing "of more importance than they all," the "fundamental principle of our religion," the thing that is "most joyous to the soul," is the ultimate demonstration of God's love for us--that the Word of God, the mighty Jehovah who was worshiped in celestial realms, condescended to come to the earth that He had formed, to walk among us, to live with us and like us, to experience sorrow, betrayal, and abandonment personally, to learn "according to the flesh" what it is to be human, to be infirm, so that "he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities" (Alma 7:12). He tasted of our humanity so that He could give us of His divinity.

He lived for us, suffered for us, died for us and rose again the third day. This atoning sacrifice is the ultimate proof of God's love for us, for, as Paul wrote, "If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:31-32). The Atonement of Christ is proof that God loved us, but it is more than that--it is proof that He will never stop loving us, that He will never stop forgiving us when we repent, that He will never stop calling to us and beckoning us to come unto Him. Because He has already paid the ultimate price to allow us to come back to Him, we can be sure that there is no further price He would not be willing to pay to make sure that we do.

Because Christ's Atonement was infinite, we can be confident that God's love and patience are also infinite. As Paul put it, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us" (Romans 8:35,37). More than conquerors, he says. Because the infinite love of an infinitely merciful God, we have the assurance of an infinite atonement which can make us, not just conquerors, but more than conquerors.

He continues, "For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (v. 38-39).
Brothers and sisters, I, like Paul, am fully persuaded that nothing in heaven, on earth, or in hell can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.

President Uchtdorf said it this way,
"Think of the purest, most all-consuming love you can imagine. Now multiply that love by an infinite amount—that is the measure of God’s love for you...Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely. Though we are imperfect, He loves us perfectly. Though we may feel lost and without compass, God’s love encompasses us completely.

"He loves us because He is filled with an infinite measure of holy, pure, and indescribable love. We are important to God not because of our résumé but because we are His children. He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken. God’s love is so great that He loves even the proud, the selfish, the arrogant, and the wicked.

"What this means is that, regardless of our current state, there is hope for us. No matter our distress, no matter our sorrow, no matter our mistakes, our infinitely compassionate Heavenly Father desires that we draw near to Him so that He can draw near to us."

God loves all His children. His love is not provincial. It does not restrict itself. God loves men and women, children and adults, rich and poor, straight and gay, black and white, Mormon and Catholic and Buddhist and Muslim, Republicans and Democrats, Americans and Russians and Africans, the married, single, and divorced, Ph.D's and high school dropouts.

At times we feel unworthy of this great love. We're not wrong to feel that way--God's love isn't something we deserve. That's the greatest miracle--that God loves us especially when we don't deserve His love. Paul put it this way in his epistle to the Romans, "The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:5-8). While we were yet sinners, he says. Christ died for us because we were sinners, not because we were good men. He died for us, not because we deserved His gift, but because we could never deserve it. His death paid for our ransom, not our signing bonus. His last acts on earth demonstrated His love for those who clearly did not deserve it. He healed of a man who came to arrest him. He consoled the thieves who hung beside him. And He pled for forgiveness for the men who crucified him. In doing so, He showed that no one is beyond the reach of His great mercy, no matter how sinful, lost, or fallen. He came as a physician for those that were sick, not for those that were whole. He came, as He said, not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.

Brothers and sisters, in our zeal to declare ourselves saints, to pat ourselves on the back for being gods in embryo, we must never forget that we, all of us and each of us, are sinners, dreadfully fallen and irredeemably lost unless we rely on the merits, and mercy, and grace, and love of the Holy Messiah, "who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit...[and] he shall make intercession for all the children of men; and they that believe in him shall be saved" (2 Nephi 2:8-9).

A year and a half ago, I had the chance to live in Jerusalem for a time. While I was there, I spent a lot of time among the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. A beautiful cathedral is built over the site where, tradition has it, Jesus knelt on a rock to pray, and suffered and bled as His atoning journey began. A friend wrote about the experience, "Christ alone paid the price for sin. He had the weight of the world press down upon Him until He bled from every pore. This blood He so freely spilt, gives us comfort and healing, life and light. How grateful I am that on this night Christ would be willing to bear the burden of my sins, that I might be healed...As I sat there in the Church...I felt a great pain for the suffering that Christ suffered on my behalf. I sat there completely alone in the church and thought of when He was completely alone in the garden. I sat there in dark (the chapel is intentionally dark to represent night) as I thought of how the Messiah kneeled in darkness, pleading on my behalf to the Father. As He bore my burden, blood came from every pore. As these thoughts filled my mind, I was then filled with the most joyous happiness I have perhaps ever felt. I did not feel guilt for His pain, I felt peace. I did not feel anxiety for the suffering I caused Him, I felt forgiveness. I did not feel sadness for causing such anguish, I felt pure love. I love my Savior, and will be eternally grateful for that which He did for me, in a garden called Gethsemane. In a garden that by its very name symbolizes the freedom, life, and light that has been brought into my life through His precious blood."

I feel much the same way. I love my Savior. I am grateful for the freedom and light He has given me, for the peace that His love has brought me. I, like my friend, have "felt to sing the song of redeeming love."

I had another friend some years ago, who was struggling with a trial I had never experienced and could not understand mentally. As I watched him go through it, I saw the depths of hell in his eyes. I saw his pain and anguish, and I chose to love him, and I hurt with him. But there came a point when I had nothing left to give him, no more emotional energy for him, when my heart was empty and I had exhausted my natural strength. And at that moment, I was filled with a love so deep I knew it did not come from within me. I saw my friend as the Savior saw him. I loved him the way the Savior loved him. When I had nothing left to give, the Lord filled me with His love, gave me His strength, showed me how much and how purely He loved both of us. He gave me a portion of that love. He taught us and healed us, showed His willingness to quickly forgive and redeem. As I grew closer to my friend, I grew closer to God. I saw that God was not the wrathful being I had imagined. I saw that, as John put it, "God is love," he said, "and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him" (1 John 4:16).

Because of Christ's great sacrifice, we can have hope for the present and for the future. We can find peace in this life, and eternal life in the world to come. We can conquer fear, for "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out all fear, because fear hath torment" (1 John 4:18). When we are filled with the love of God, we can find peace even in a world of turmoil, even when, like Nephi, we do not understand the meaning of all things.

Nephi's statement has become more and more meaningful to me over the years, as I have come to grips with many things I do not understand. I have asked questions for which there are no answers. At times I have cried in frustration to the heavens, and the heavens have remained silent. But one thing that I have felt over and over again is the assurance that God loves me, that He knows me, that He wants me back, that nothing that is or was or ever will be can separate me from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I believe that someday I will have all the answers I now lack. I believe that my Savior, who lived and died for me, will one day come again, that I will see in his eyes His great love, which I now glimpse only "through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know [his love] in part, but then I shall know even as I am known" (1 Cor. 13:12).

Until that day, I know and bear witness that each of us are children of God, and that God loves His children.

Picture from http://www.illuminatemind.com/uploads/Image/Spirit%20eagle.jpg