Several years ago, I was speaking at a CHS youth worship camp. I began the session by splitting them into small groups and asked them to list the titles of the pop songs they were listening to. Without exception, the songs centred around one theme: love. Love songs. We sing about or to the one whom we love.
Today, I want to begin by asking you this simple question, “Do you believe God loves you?” It’s not a trick question. I’m not asking, “Do you believe God loves us?” I’m asking “Do you believe God loves you?” Deep down inside, do you believe that? When your parents are arguing, when you are struggling with your studies, when you are being bullied, when you are dead tired setting papers, and marking, and you still have to wake up the next day and face the students who give you so much stress… do you believe that God loves you?
Some time back, a seminary professor (someone who teaches in a bible college) asked her students this very same question. Out of these 120 students who were studying and preparing themselves for Christian ministry, how many of them do you think answered, “Yes, I believe God loves me.” 2. 2 out of 120 Christians who were preparing themselves for full-time ministry believed that God loved them.
Many of them said something like, “I know I’m supposed to say yes… but I don’t feel it” or “I’m not sure I can really say I believe it”. Can we identify with them? If you were totally honest with yourself, perhaps you may also say along with me, we don’t really, truly, deeply know and believe that God loves us. We may say it. We may cognitively acknowledge it as a fact. But we may not be experiencing God’s love as THE most fundamental reality in our lives.
This afternoon, God invites us to know Him more, experience His love deeper, and be changed from the inside out. [PRAY]
Ephesians 1:15 For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints, 16 do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.
The Apostle Paul was writing to Christians here, “the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you…” (v. 15). But why would he pray that God would give to them “a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.” (v. 17)? In part, because we need to grow in our knowing of God. An analogy I would use is marriage. My wife and I will celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary this November. Before we got married, we knew each other for about 7 years. All in all, I think we know each other pretty well. When we first started dating, we sometimes would finish each other’s sentences. We’re soul-mates. And yet, we’re still only probably scratching the surface in terms of knowing one another. Through the years of marriage, we are still discovering new things about each other. And by God’s grace, we are still growing in our love for one another. It’s the same with our relationship with God.
Living in today’s society, particularly in Singapore (with its education system) presents certain challenges in cultivating our relationship with God. I’m going to mention 3.
i. Cognitive vs. Experiential Knowledge
The Singaporean education system is by and large a good system. It has enabled us to move from 3rd world to 1st in a relatively short time. But it’s not without its flaws. One of which is the eminence of paper qualifications. You have the certificate and people think you’re the expert. That’s not necessarily true, and in the spiritual realm, it works the same way.
We may have gone through baptism courses. We may have attended Christian Education classes. We may have even gone through seminary etc. And we think we’re the experts. We pat ourselves on the shoulders. We think we know God. We think we love God. But we may not have experienced first-hand God’s love for us. (“I know God loves me” vs. “I know God loves me”).
John Wesley is one of the giants of the Christian faith, one of the founding fathers of Methodism (the Methodist Church). He was a pastor and had preached on two continents – England and Georgia. But something happened to him on Aldersgate Street in London on 24 May 1738. As he sat listening to the reading of the preface to Martin Luther’s work on the epistle of Romans, John Wesley described what happened in his heart…
“About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Amazingly, Wesley had been preaching in church for years, but now he tasted the love of God. He had a new sense of its sweetness. His life and ministry were transformed. We have to move from cognitive knowing to experiential knowing. We must experience for ourselves, the love of God.
In June last year, my family and I attended our church camp. It was a wonderful 5 days of sitting at the feet of Pastor Christopher Chia (Adam Road Presbyterian Church) and hearing God’s Word ministered to us by one of the best preachers in our country. Wonderful. But personally, the most memorable moment during the camp was when God met me during one of the sessions of worship.
Let me set the background. Just before the session started, I had a quarrel with my wife. She said something that really hurt me. So I didn’t enter the hall with her. I sat by myself. And as I was sitting there, the lyrics of an old song came to me (one which I hadn’t sung for a long time):
“O Lord, Your tenderness, melting all my bitterness
O Lord, I receive Your love
O Lord, Your loveliness, changing all my ugliness
O Lord, I receive Your love…”
At that moment, as I was thinking about that song, the worship team started playing it. God’s presence just manifested. Wave upon wave of God’s love washed over me. Washing away the bitterness. Washing away the ugliness. Replacing it with the pure love of God. God was real. He showed up. He healed the hurts of my heart and after the session, I was able to go to my wife to reconcile with her.
ii. Emotionalism vs. Emotions
We just talked about needing to experience God’s love. But the other extreme we need to avoid is emotionalism. The idea is that our faith swings with our emotions. We attend a Hillsong conference, for example. And we get pumped up. We have an emotional high. But then after the conference, we go back to ‘normal, daily life’ and we just go through the motions, waiting for the next spiritual high. It’s not supposed to be like this. Now notice what I’m not saying.
I’m not saying attending camps, conferences, seminars, retreats etc are bad. We need these. These can be important markers in our spiritual walk. Setting special time apart to encounter God. But experiencing God’s love is NOT confined to these events. We can experience God’s love in the course of daily life. Eating our meals. At work. Waiting for the bus/train. Studying in class. Driving in traffic. Exercising. Sleeping. Our emotions do not determine the state of our spiritual walk.
Having said that, I’m also not saying that emotions are bad. In fact, emotions are essential in any love relationship, let alone our relationship with God. Jonathan Edwards is one of the finest theologians America has produced. His preaching and ministry was instrumental in the first “Great Awakening” in America, a period of great religious revival in the 1700s. He wrote about the relationship between emotions and our walk with God in this way, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections”.
I want you to imagine it’s Valentine’s Day and I’m presenting my wife with a bouquet of roses. I tell her, “Happy Valentine’s honey. I didn’t really feel like getting you these flowers but what to do, it’s my duty. Even though I don’t get any joy in this, but can’t be helped lar. I’m your husband.” What should I expect from my wife? *Slap on the face* But why? Didn’t I do my duty? Didn’t I sacrifice a lot (roses cost crazy money for Valentine’s right)?
But this was mere duty. The heart wasn’t in it. This act did not honour my wife. And the same goes with God. Mere duty does not honour Him. The act without the heart doesn’t mean much to God. True love for God consists in holy affections.
iii. Performance Trap
We who grew up in Singapore know this very well. We are told from young, “You must study hard. If not, you cannot get a good job. And when you get a good job, you must work hard. If not, you cannot get promoted. Cannot earn a decent living. Cannot afford a house. Cannot afford to get married. Cannot provide for your children etc.” All through our schooling years into our adulthood, the measure of our worth depends on how hard we work. And unconsciously or subconsciously, we transfer that attitude to our relationship with God.
We think, “God loves us if (fill in the blank). If we serve more. If we live a more holy life. If we tithe more. God will love us if…” This causes us to feel guilty or depressed because we feel like we never do enough. Or we’re never good enough. And so we give up. God can’t possibly love me.
Or we may think another way, “God loves us because (fill in the blank). Because I already serve. Because I already give. Because.” This causes us to be arrogant because we feel we deserve God’s love. We deserve God’s blessings. After all, we know more, give more, serve more than others. And when we think God doesn’t come through for us, we turn our backs against the faith. And again, we give up. God doesn’t love me.
But the truth of Christianity is this; God loves us in spite of… Romans 5:8 “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” This is the gospel. Good news. We need to return to this God who loves us in spite of… who we are or what we do. This is the foundation of our faith. This is the only thing that can sustain our faith. The Never-Stopping, Never-Giving-Up, Un-breaking, Always and Forever Love of God in Christ Jesus.
Ultimately, knowing God is about cultivating intimacy with God. I don’t know which version of the Bible you use, but in the ESV, Genesis 4:1 is rendered this way, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain…” At first glance, it’s strange. He knew her and she gave birth? What does it mean? The NASB renders the verse this way, “Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain…” Had relations. What kind? Sexual relations. Intimacy. Friends, when the Bible uses the term to know, it means much more than head knowledge. It means intimacy, closeness. Let us know God that way. To be close to Him. To know Him intimately.
How? How do we cultivate intimacy with God. I want to call us today back to basics. I’m going to use two phrases to describe how to grow in our walk with God.
- Open Bible
- Open hearts…
And they must come together. We open the Bible because the Bible is the very Word of God. Young people, you must cultivate a love for God’s Word. You must give time to it. God speaks through His Word, and if you want to know God more, you must hear His voice in the Bible.
But that’s not enough. We must do so with open hearts. The key to intimacy is obedience. Not just believing in God’s Word, but obeying God’s Word. Let me close with this passage of Scripture. John 14:21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
Does this passage mean that God only loves us if we obey Him? Of course not! God’s love is always primary. God is always the initiator. But there is a sense in which how much we experience of God’s love is a result of our obedience to Him.
Is there a disconnect, a gap, between what God speaks to you and your obedience to what He says? You see my friends, often, God will not reveal more of Himself and His will, until we act on what we already know.
This afternoon, God invites you to respond to the preaching of His Word. He is calling you to encounter and experience His love afresh, anew. He is calling you to commit to open His word with open hearts. Open Bible. Open hearts.