How Does Jesus Love You? (Let me count the ways.)
Eric M. Pazdziora
The story goes that somebody once asked a great theologian—nobody’s quite sure which theologian, but so the story goes—what was the most profound doctrinal statement he had ever heard. The theologian thought for a moment and replied:
“Jesus loves me; this I know
For the Bible tells me so.”
We smile at the irony of a distinguished scholar singing a ditty for children. But I think he knew his stuff. Unless you become like a little child, after all, you won’t get into the kingdom of God. Out of the mouths of infants and babes, God has perfected praise. In those three little words we all sang as children is everything we really need to know: “Jesus loves me.”
Is the statement too simple? It might seem that way, especially if (like me) you learned those words just as soon as you were old enough to sing them. Like most simple truths, it’s easy to overlook it, to neglect it, to assume we know it and move along. But some things shouldn’t be overlooked—at least, not according to the Bible that tells us so. “This is My commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). “The life which I now live in the flesh,” wrote Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). It’s even in the Bible’s most-quoted passage on marriage: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 2:25).
Jesus’ love for us is not just a simple truth for children, though it is that. It’s not just a comforting thought for when we’re feeling lonely, though it is that. It’s not even just a doctrinal proposition, though you can make it that if you like. If these verses are anything to go by, it’s nothing less than the foundation of everything to do with the Christian faith and the Christian life.
This leads to an obvious question, a question so obvious that I’m not surprised so few people think to ask it. How, exactly, does Christ love the church? What does the Bible mean when it says Jesus loves me?
It may be an obvious question to ask, but it’s not a trivial one to answer. The answer you give to it will do more to shape your life than anything else will. Or perhaps it’s that the shape of your life reveals the answer you’ve given to this question.
Maybe that’s part of the reason Jesus was so furiously opposed to spiritual abuse. When a Christian husband is domineering, harsh, or controlling toward his wife, it sends the message that that’s how Jesus treats the people He loves. When a pastor is legalistic, arrogant, browbeating, or manipulative toward his congregation, it sends the message that that’s how Jesus treats the people He leads. When a church leader withholds his approval until you’ve met his arbitrary standard, it sends the message that that’s how Jesus dispenses His love.
Is Jesus manipulative? Can Jesus’ love be earned? Does Jesus micromanage? Does Jesus demand perfection? Does Jesus use “love” as a tool to compel our servitude? Does Jesus withhold His love from those who aren’t good enough? Does Jesus force submission? Is Jesus harsh and authoritarian? Does Jesus reject those who don’t love Him enough?
I admit that if we looked for the answer to those questions in the way we’ve been treated by some people who called themselves Jesus’ followers, we might come up with an unflattering picture. (Trying to calculate from Christians in my own experience, I’d estimate two negative for every positive, evening out more lately.)
But that’s where the second line of the song comes in. It doesn’t say “Jesus loves me; this I know / for my pastor treats me so.” Or my parents, or my friends, or my employers, or anybody else. To see what Jesus’ love is like, we have to start with Jesus Himself, and the most reliable representation we have of Jesus is in the Bible. Once we know what Jesus’ love is really like, then (and only then) we can determine whether something else shows Jesus’ love correctly.
The minor difficulty here is that trying to find the parts of the Bible that talk about God’s love is a bit like trying to find the parts of Moby Dick that talk about whales. What parts don’t? And I can’t just go slapping all 1,189 chapters into one article or we’ll be here all month. It might be worth mentioning, though, that Jesus Himself advocated reading the whole Bible in just that way—looking for the truth about Him in every part. “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). You could do a lot worse than, whenever you read a passage of Scripture, asking yourself, “How can I see the love of Jesus here?”
There are some verses, though, where it’s especially easy to see.
Jesus’ love is real and knowable.
He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him. (John 14:21)
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19)
To people with a skeptical nature, this whole notion of the love of Jesus can seem to border on absurdity. I get that. It’s easy enough to appreciate where the skeptics and atheists are coming from on this one. There’s a person you can’t see, yet you’re certain He loves you? Isn’t that just having an imaginary friend?
I respect an honest skeptic. So does Jesus. He doesn’t propose what would surely turn off any doubting inquirer, a glib assertion that “you’ve just gotta have faith.” Instead, He asks us to observe a particular commandment: “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” (John 15:12. This also explains the verse that trips up some readers: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The commandment in question is not to practice legalism but to love others.)
If you try this, Jesus says, “I will manifest myself to [you].” In other words, if you want to see whether Jesus’ love is real, find out how His love is described and try loving other people that way. Then you’ll know—although, as Paul says in Ephesians, you will “know this love that surpasses knowledge.” There’s a lot more to it than knowing: it’s like the difference between knowing someone’s name and having them as a friend. Or, if you like, the difference between having an imaginary friend and having a real friend.
Jesus’ love is like the Father’s.
As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. (John 15:9)
Some people give the impression that God the Father was itching to smite us with His wrath until Jesus stepped in and showed us some love instead. Those people are wrong. Jesus said He does nothing but what He sees the Father do (John 5:19). So anything that’s true of the love of Jesus for us is true of the love of His Father for us.
However, this declaration moves it to another dimension: Jesus said His love for His disciples—and therefore, the Father’s love for His disciples—was just like the Father’s love for Him. The Father’s love for His Son is eternal and unchangeable, a greater constant than the universe itself. It’s a part of His essential nature: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Jesus loves you exactly the same way.
Jesus’ love takes the form of a sacrifice.
This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. (John 15:12-13)
And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. (Ephesians 5:2)
By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. (1 John 3:16)
Loving someone means wanting what’s best for them. Truly loving someone means giving up something voluntarily so they can get what’s best for them. It can’t be forced or manipulated by anyone else—real love makes sacrifice come naturally. The more someone truly loves, the more they freely sacrifice.
R. A. Torrey put it directly: “The love of Jesus Christ manifested itself in His giving Himself, laying down His life for us. His was a self-sacrificing love. The death of Christ was not the only sacrifice He made, but the crowning one. His whole life was a sacrifice, from the manger to the cross. His becoming man at all was a sacrifice of immeasurable greatness and meaning. (See Philippians 2:6-7.)” (What the Bible Teaches, ch. 4).
This shows that Jesus’ love won’t demand, compel, or manipulate. Jesus never says, “Well, now that I’ve given so much, it’s time for you to do something for me.” He follows His own commandment to “give, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35).
He just gives. He gives everything.
He gives Himself.
Jesus loves people when they don’t deserve it.
Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:7-8)
The greatest kind of love we can imagine (as Jesus said) is someone giving up their life for someone they love. We could probably picture ourselves trading our lives for somebody we love who loves us back—our child, our spouse, our best friend. But how about taking a bullet to save an enemy? Drowning to rescue somebody who hates you? Consider your mind staggered.
Sin, by definition, is an action that goes against God’s nature. Lies are sinful because God is the truth; adultery is sinful because God is faithful; resentment is sinful because God is forgiving, and so on. God hates sin because it puts us at odds with Him: our choice to sin makes us God’s enemies (compare Colossians 1:21, James 4:4). But God didn’t wait for us to turn our lives around, to become “good enough” to earn His love and approval.
Jesus died for us while we were His enemies.
If you have ever thought that you had to be good enough for Jesus to love you, or that Jesus would stop loving you if you did something bad, or that the better you were the more Jesus would love you, now would be an appropriate time for you to crumple that thought up and toss it in a wastebasket to hell.
Jesus’ love makes people pure and beautiful.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
Why did Jesus sacrifice Himself for us? We all know the Sunday School answer: “To take away our sins.” However, that doesn’t fully answer the question of “why”—it tells the result but not the motive.
What was His motive? He wants to make us pure and beautiful, like a bride in white. He wants to make us glorious, flawless, and spotless. He wants to show that He considers us beautiful and unique and special. He wants to take away anything that might make someone think otherwise. He wants us to be whole, and complete, and cleansed, and made new and lovely. He wants to celebrate us, delight in us, rejoice over us.
And that’s exactly what His sacrificial love for us accomplished.
By the way, that verse is written to tell Christian husbands how to treat their wives. So if you ever wanted to see one verse that singlehandedly demolishes the false teaching of Patriarchy—well, there you go. To Jesus, to love and lead means to serve and sacrifice.
Jesus’ love nourishes and cherishes.
For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. (Ephesians 5:29)
This verse continues the previous thought, part of the same admonition to husbands. A godly husband applies the Golden Rule to his wife—he loves her as he loves himself. He nourishes her—he makes sure she has everything she needs to be healthy and grow. He cherishes her—he lets her know how special he thinks she is. He shows her every day that he’s thankful for the blessing of having her in his life. He encourages her and builds her up. He makes room for her to be vibrant and to flourish.
He got that idea from the way Jesus treats the church.
Jesus’ love lifts the lowly.
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes,
with the princes of their people. (Psalm 113:7-8)
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
God’s love for us is not from the top down but from the bottom up. Jesus didn’t wait for us to get our acts together; He got His hands dirty. The story of the Incarnation is the story of a king who laid aside His crown for the love of a beggar. Then, a beggar Himself, He gave the beggar He loved His crown and all His kingdom.
Jesus loves the neglected, the poor, the lowly, the outcasts, the overlooked, the untouchable. Jesus loves the disenfranchised, the misfits, the minorities, the friendless, the victims. He loves them so much that He came to earth and became one of them Himself.
Jesus was not ashamed of your lowliness; He made it His own. Jesus does not wait for you or anyone else to lift yourself up; He lifts you up. Jesus’ love doesn’t put us down in our places. It lifts us up to His place.
Jesus’ love is friendship.
No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)
Jesus doesn’t just love you in a vacuous general sense, like a recorded message that says, “Your call is very important to us.” Jesus doesn’t just love you because He’s somehow obligated to. Jesus doesn’t just love you because He loves everybody as a collective group. Jesus loves you as an individual. More than that—Jesus likes you.
Jesus isn’t interested in having mindless servants who blindly obey. Jesus wants friends who will hang out with Him. Jesus wants friends He can talk with (His favorite topic, again, is His Father). Jesus thinks you’re the kind of person He’d like to get together with over coffee. Or, if you’re in England, tea.
Jesus’ love is constructive.
As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. (Revelation 3:19).
This verse may rub us the wrong way if we’ve been abused by authoritarian leaders. In reality, it shows us how Jesus finds a middle path between two extreme misunderstandings of discipline. A parent who destructively abuses and controls their child does not love that child as Jesus does, but neither does a parent who carelessly lets their child do whatever they please. Jesus instead gives us constructive training and guidance to help us develop into free and healthy individuals. As Paul put it, “The kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Romans 2:4, emphasis mine).
The fact that Jesus loves us does not guarantee that our life will be all flowers and sunshine and rainbows—often, quite the opposite. Jesus allows suffering and hardship in our lives to teach us and (sometimes) to correct us. It’s not that suffering always means we’ve done something wrong—though our actions do have consequences—but that it often gives us an opportunity to see our faults with a bit more clarity. (For instance, having to wait in a long line at the bank reveals to me that I’m woefully impatient.) That in turn gives us an opportunity to change and to become more enthusiastic about our walk with God.
Jesus’ discipline and training is not about controlling us but about helping us to grow. When Jesus points out our faults, weaknesses, or sins, it’s never to make us feel guilty or inferior but to get us to turn away from them and turn instead to His grace and the transforming love and power of His Spirit.
Jesus’ love is compassionate.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice… (Isaiah 42:3)
If you’re bruised, or wounded, or hurting, it may seem like people want to cast you aside, throw you away, or (worst) make you think it was all your fault. What good is a bruised reed except to break and throw away? What good is a smoldering candle except to blow out? What good is a broken person except as a cautionary tale to avoid?
Not to Jesus. Jesus isn’t in the business of discarding things other people have broken. Jesus is in the business of finishing the good work He started. Jesus treats the bruised and broken things of the world with the tenderness they need to recover and return to life.
Jesus is all about resurrections.
Jesus’ love identifies with our suffering.
For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me. (Romans 15:3)
In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:9)
When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a fiery furnace for their convictions, the king who put them there was astonished to see a fourth man in the flames with them—one who looked like “the son of a god” (Daniel 3:25). Jesus does something infinitely better than keeping us from ever going through suffering and hardship. He experiences our suffering and hardship right along with us. He’s not just with us in our suffering, or even just “carrying us” like in the old “Footprints” poem, but actually experiencing our suffering as much as we are.
In His life on earth, Jesus experienced what it was to be hurt, abandoned, beaten up, misunderstood, mocked, laughed at, scorned, slapped, betrayed, tempted, and even seemingly forsaken by God. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus’ suffering absolved not only our sins but also our griefs and our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4). When someone insults you, hurts you, or abuses you, Jesus feels it too. He’s been there before, and He’s there with you now.
Jesus’ love is unilateral.
We love him, because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
Once in a while, it helps your interpretation if you look very closely at what the Bible doesn’t say. For instance, this verse doesn’t say, “We have to strive to love Him if we want Him to love us back.” It doesn’t say, “He loves us when we love Him and do our best to be well-behaved and attractive.” It definitely doesn’t say, “He won’t love us until we’re good enough.” You get the idea.
Lots of people like to use the phrase “unconditional love,” which is accurate as far as it goes—Jesus’ love comes with no strings attached. But the Bible goes even further than that phrase does. A friend of mine, a theologically minded woman, once suggested the phrase “unilateral love”: as far as Jesus is concerned, His love for us is entirely His idea and exclusively His initiative. I like the phrase.
Jesus’ love for us is the cause, and our love for Him is the effect. If you want to love Jesus more, don’t waste your time trying to strive or to do good things or to work up your passion and emotions. Just think about Jesus’ love for you, and how much He had to do with it, and how little (nothing) you had to do with it.
A little girl in London once asked her Sunday School teacher—his name was Mark Guy Pearse—how she could learn to love Jesus, since she didn’t. Pearse thought for a moment and replied, “Little girl, as you go away from here today, keep saying to yourself, ‘Jesus loves me,’ ‘Jesus loves me,’ and I believe you will come back next Sunday saying, ‘I love Jesus.’”
Jesus’ love is invincible.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 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 created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)
(To be followed by the “Sevenfold Amen.”)
Well then. In the words of a scholar who taught me many of the principles of applied hermeneutics and exegesis—“So what?” Was this all a pointless intellectual exercise, or does it make a difference to the life we’ll face on a Monday morning?
If you were expecting a list of things to do here, I’m going to have to disappoint you. The first thing Jesus tells us to do about His love is to stop doing things about it. His word of choice is “Abide”: “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love” (John 15:9). “Abide” means “Make yourself at home.” Stay, relax, hang out, take a load off, pull up a seat, put down roots; you can stay forever. Jesus wants us to live in His love.
What does it mean to live in Jesus’ love? It means you can know you will always have someone who loves you. As the psalmist sang, “Though my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up” (Psalm 27:10).
It means that you never have to worry about being good enough for Him to love you. Jesus loved you first. Your behavior had nothing to do with it either way. You don’t have anything to live up to. You’re already good enough.
It means you don’t have to worry whether you will be loved or not. You just have to know that you are loved, and that therefore you are worth loving. You can lose the worries of legalism, perfectionism, and authoritarianism. You can feel the freedom to love yourself. You can feel the security of being unconditionally loved.
If you still insist on doing something, there is one thing you can do: You can love other people the same way Jesus does. Jesus said, “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Of course, that’s impossible, except for one thing: abiding in Jesus’ love changes us and makes us more like Him. The more we see what Jesus’ love is, the more we become able to love that way ourselves. It’s not the kind of commandment you have to struggle to live up to; it’s the kind of commandment you grow into and live out.
One other thing. Don’t accept substitutes. Don’t believe the lies. Once you see what Jesus’ love is like, stay there. Don’t put any other person or place or idea in that place, especially not one that’s a lie. Nothing can separate you from Jesus’ love for you. Nothing can stop you from being loved forever.
Anything that says otherwise isn’t Jesus.