I was giving some Bible studies to a young man who wanted to know the reason for his faith. He had grown up in an Adventist home, had recently graduated from an Adventist school, but was still questioning why he believed what he believed. After our third meeting, he got up and said, “I don’t want any more studies. I don’t think this is for me.”
As he began walking away, I suddenly thought to ask, “During your life, have you ever encountered God’s love?” He looked at me quizzically for a moment, before answering, “no.” But his answer sounded more like a question.
I had recently been re-reading Ellen White’s classic, Steps to Christ, as I had been wondering what the steps to Christ actually were. What struck me most was that Chapter 1 is not a step to Christ—it is a step that Christ makes towards us—with a revelation of His love for us. The whole book afterwards explains the steps we make to Christ in response to encountering God’s love. Whether it is prayer, faith, submission, repentance—everything is framed as a response to an experiential encounter with the love of Jesus.
It was reading this that prompted my question to the young man. Tragically, for whatever reasons, he believed he had never had encountered divine love. And this, I believe, was at the root of his decision to leave. Actually, I think he left the church in search of love.
I have thought a lot about this brief conversation. Most of all, it has been a wake-up call to the reality that we can be an extremely religious community without experiencing divine love personally…
Many years ago, Paul wrote that without love I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2). The same is true for us a community. Without love, we have nothing.
Which finally leads me to the issue of unity. John famously wrote that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Notice here that love is not something God has. Rather, love is who God is. Love is not so much a characteristic of God as God’s essence. This means that everything else is held together by God’s love. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14, NLT). Therefore, it is God’s love that makes unity possible. Unity is found within God’s love.
When we go back to the moments after creation, Adam and Eve were held together in community with God until they made a choice to leave. God’s love permitted them room to make mistakes and even to risk an eternity without Him. Like the Father of the Prodigal son, God did not compel them to return. Rather, from Eden God pointed them to the sacrifice of Christ and said, “Look at the sacrifice I will make for you—would you like to return and regain unity with me, in my love?”
The Fall demonstrates the fragility of the human condition—how easy it is to utilize our free will to ignore God and do our own thing. How easy it is for our pride to be aroused, for our egos to blind us, and to make choices in the spur of a moment that will have consequences for eternity.
The older I get and the more aware I am that God loves me, the more I am compelled to extend compassion towards others who do foolish things towards me—to give people the benefit of the doubt, to be long-suffering, to listen before proclaiming judgement. When I was younger, it was much easier to declare people idiots, fools, and rebels who did not see the world as I did. The reality is that we are all broken and are hobbling towards the finish line. And it is best if we give each other a helping hand along the way rather than trying to poke each other in the eye.
But perhaps the Fall demonstrates the fragility of God’s love. God committed Himself to utter sacrifice, without the guarantee that anyone would take advantage of it. We could have all looked away or stayed behind the tree. Love could not compel us to come and choose God again. Love could only attract us back. True love that restores true unity can only work by attraction.
So what would love need to look like so that young man could finally say, “Yes, I have seen the love of God—I have seen it in you”? And that love would be so attractive that he would start making some steps back towards Christ and find himself embraced by God’s love. Back into unity with God and all the rest of God’s children.
As a church administrator, I find this particularly challenging. I head a religious organization, yet it is always a challenge to remain spiritual. When I chair a committee and address people problems or matters of church policy, will people see this type of attractive love in how I deal with them? When auditors check the minutes of our meetings or our churches hear about our decisions, will they be able to sense the love of God—a love that is irresistible? Will they see a love that will pull them towards Christ, and therefore into deeper unity with each other?
The Fall makes this complicated. Not just for me, but for those on the other side of the table. Because when I get it wrong, and my ego leads to an imperfect decision, will others be long-suffering with me? Will they give me the benefit of the doubt? Will they treat me with compassion as I aspire to offer them?
I hope so. And if this is possible, we have a chance to become a united community. We may act imperfectly, at times we may really annoy each other, but because love is a priority and we commit to loving deeply, we are able to remain together in Christ.
And that, I think, is an attractive place to be.
Gavin Anthony is President of the Iceland Conference in the Trans-European Division.
Photo courtesy of Pexels.
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