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. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Holiness of God
Sometimes I think the doctrine of the incarnation — that God in Christ took on flesh and became a human being like you and me — can obscure our view of God’s holiness. Many rightly accept Jesus as proof that God loves them, but they totally misunderstand what love actually is. As a result, God’s nearness and desire for a personal relationship end up making God a little squishy or even weak in their eyes. Some go so far (often unconsciously) as to twist their picture of God into some kind of benevolent grandfather, who would let them get away almost anything because He “loves” them. He becomes a “man upstairs” kind of God.
At Christmas time, we talk a lot about God’s love for us, and about His coming to earth to walk among us and redeem us. And well we should! But I want to pause for a second this Christmas Eve and make sure we are rightly understanding what love is. What does Jesus teach us about love?
Although it may seem like its off topic at first, the reality is that to rightly understand God’s love, we must first understand God’s holiness. God is not like us. At all. Many wrongly imagine God to be the greatest of our type of being. Since we’re made in His image and Jesus became a man Himself, perhaps that means that God looks like us somehow (only way more amazing), and acts like us (only perfectly good), and thinks like us (only perfectly wise), etc. But this is not true. We are not “smaller versions” of God. We are made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27) in the sense that God gives us the capacity (unlike all other animals) to relate to Him, to be adopted as His children. But we are not some kind of copy of God.
When the Bible says that God is “holy”, it means that God is “completely other” … radically foreign to us. Wholly different. We are not in the same category as God, but just further down the food chain. Nobody is in the same category as God. There is nothing and no one, of any kind or type, to which God can be compared. He is unique. Self-sufficient. Self-existing. Any attempt to describe God boils down to allusion and metaphor — many of which overlap and many others of which contradict. And that’s because we lack the language to describe, the experience to contextualize, even the categories to understand what and who God is. Haven’t you ever wondered why the Bible isn’t a technical reference manual, but rather thousands of years of history, poetry, story, biography, prophesy, etc? Well, I think this is in part why. God can’t just be written down in description form. You can’t fit Him on any page or in any box. This is what it means for God to be “transcendent”. God is not the greatest of any category or describe-able by categories. Instead, He transcends categories! He’s a category unto Himself.
This is why, when Moses asked God for His name, God said to Moses, “I am who I am. Say to the people of Israel that ‘I am’ has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14). By this, God means exactly what we’ve been talking about. If God were to give Himself a name like “Bob” or “Lightning” or “Powerful”, then you would immediately think that other Bob’s you know or other experiences of lightning you’ve had or other displays of power you’ve seen would be good measuring rods by which to understand Him. Not so. God is like lightning only in that lightning vaguely resembles some aspect of God’s presence. God is powerful on a level at which nothing else can be conceived. He can only be measured by Himself, only be understood in comparison to Himself. He is who He is.
God’s holiness makes everything totally one-sided
One immediate implication of God’s transcendent holiness is that these is absolutely no sense in which God needs us. He wants us (for our sakes, not His), but He doesn’t need us. We don’t offer Him anything. We in no way complete Him. We have nothing to offer Him that He doesn’t already possess perfectly and completely. We can’t repay Him. We can’t bribe Him. We can’t contribute to Him. He is absolutely complete and content alone in Himself, with or without a material universe, space, time, matter, energy, angels, people, pets (gasp!), rocks, birds, worship music, or anything else. He chooses that these things would exist so that they will benefit from His presence; He doesn’t benefit from theirs.
So, in no sense do we attract God to us. We have nothing He wants such that He would come to us to get it. We aren’t just unattractive because we’re sinful, dirty, broken and rebellious, but because God has no needs of any kind which could in any sense make it meaningful for something to be attractive to Him.
We also have no hope of seeking out, reaching out to, finding (or even searching for), or attempting to comprehend this transcendent God … except that He reveals Himself to us. For that matter, we wouldn’t exist at all or have the capacity to seek to understand anything if He didn’t create us in the first place and make us enough like Him to do so.
All of this is to say that if there is to be any kind of relational interaction between God and man, then by definition a few things must be true about it:
- God is transcendently “other” (holy), with no needs and no necessary connection to us, so God chooses to create and interact with us only because He desires to do so
- God takes the initiative and reaches out to man — we don’t (can’t) come to God; God comes to us
- The interaction is 100% for our benefit and 0% for His — we are entirely the benefactors of God’s approaching us; there’s nothing in it for Him
What does all this have to do with love?
Without understanding these things, we can’t rightly understand love.
Even though God was unimaginably glorious and perfectly content, alone in Himself… Even though He needed nothing… Even though God was perfectly well aware of how ugly human beings would become practically the second He created them… Even though, once He created us, we had absolutely nothing to offer Him…
Because God loves us!
Because that’s what it means to be God. That’s who God is. As categorically transcendent Perfection, if God creates a universe full of creatures, then the only way the universe can even begin to understood Him is … as expressing love … as giving of Himself. God is absolutely and infinitely full, and anything he creates is, by definition, empty by comparison. Therefore, the only possible interaction He can have with anything He’s created is to give — to pour out from His infinite supply into the fully-dependent need of His creation.
So God, in His very nature, loves. He only gives; it is meaningless to talk about God’s “taking” something. He condescends / stoops down to interact with the chaos and messiness that is humanity. He tolerates us, choosing not to bring all His godness to bear on us — because if He did, the human race would have ended the second Adam bit into the apple in the garden. He comes to us and walks among us. He patiently fixes what we break. He restores, renews, and redeems. God sacrifices even His only Son for us. He fundamentally defines love. And frankly, outside of looking at Jesus, we couldn’t have imagined the extent and nature of God’s love in our wildest dreams.
Because Jesus, “though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
This is the love of our holy God … stepping toward us entirely for our benefit, letting go of what was rightfully His to elevate us to what we couldn’t have imagined attaining. Emptying Himself to fill us up. This is love! The love demonstrated in the incarnation of our transcendent, unfathomable God (leading to His crucifixion and resurrection) is the ultimate model for our shadowy facsimile of love here on earth. If, in even the weakest way, we learn to empty ourselves, to make ourselves nothing, to take on the form of a servant, to sacrifice ourselves for another’s gain, to put you before me … then we are sons of God, seen by heaven and earth to reflect our Father as the moon reflects the sun.
Love Lessons by Counter-Example
The sinful nature of fallen humanity is the opposite of God’s love. When we embrace it, we are sons of a different father, satan. Where God is love and pours Himself out for the sake of others, satan is selfish and consumes others for His own gain. Where God gives from His infinite resources to fill the empty and restore the broken; satan sees everyone and everything as objects to be emptied and broken. Satan came to us in the garden to destroy paradise. God comes to us in the manger to restore it.
We see the love of God so clearly in the contrast. God gives up what is rightfully His to give us what we could never take for ourselves. Satan claws and scrapes in a futile, rebellious attempt to take for himself what only God can have. And often, so do we! We must every day decide whose sons and daughters we will be, and by whose example we will pattern our lives. Moses told the Israelites in the wilderness that God had set before them life and death, blessing and cursing (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). This is no less true of us today. Then he (Moses) demanded that they choose (life or death). Our earthly lives constitute the exact same demand from the Lord: you must choose! Love (others before self), which is life, or selfishness (me, me, me), which is death.
If we consider ourselves superior to others — someone who should be served or stroked or stimulated by those around us whom we consider to be less than ourselves… If we use others for our own gain… If we take what doesn’t belong to us… If we pray, “Thank God that I am not like other men, like this tax collector” (Luke 18:9-14)… If we do not love… Then we are not sons of God, and we have not learned the lesson of the incarnate Christ. How, then, can we expect heaven to be for us? We’ve chosen death.
But if we seek our neighbors good before our own (1 Cor 10:24), if we look not only to our needs but to theirs as well (Phil 2:4), if we come into each day not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45), if we show kindness to the least of these (Matt 25:31-46), if we deny ourselves and take up our crosses daily (Luke 9:23) … If we love… Then we are sons of God, and look a lot like Jesus. And in heaven, we’ll fit right in. We’ve chosen life.
Jesus’ incarnation, leading to His death and resurrection, is the ultimate act of love. It’s how a transcendent holy God interacts with fallen man. It’s meaning is grounded in how freely God chose and how far God came to set His love upon you. This Christmas, may we learn love from His example! Could we look for ways to empty ourselves, become a servant, and perhaps even suffer loss for the sake of others? Could we dare to consider those who have so little to be greater than those of us who have so much, because an infinite God is in the process of filling them to overflowing? Could we humble ourselves and go to the back of the line (everyone’s “line” is different; what’s yours?), because we want to be like Jesus?
Because I can’t think of a better way this year to celebrate Christmas!
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life [self, self, self!] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake [love, love, love!] will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)