How Is God's Love Experienced in the Heart?
Experiencing the love of God, not just thinking about it, is something we should desire with all our hearts. This is an experience of great joy because in it we taste the very reality of God and his love. It is the ground of deep and wonderful assurance - the assurance that our hope "will not disappoint us" (Romans 5:5). This assurance helps us "exult in the hope of the glory of God" (Romans 5:2). It carries us through terrible trials of faith.
Is this experience of the love of God the same for all believers? No, not in degree. If all believers had the same experience of the love of God, Paul would not have prayed for the Ephesians that they "be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge" (Ephesians 3:18-19). He prayed this because some were deficient in their experience of this love of God in Christ.
How then do we pursue the fullness of the experience of the love of God poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit? One key is to realize that the experience is not like hypnosis or electric shock or drug-induced hallucinations or shivers at a good tune. Rather it is mediated through knowledge. It is not the same as knowledge. But it comes through knowledge. Or to say it another way, this experience of the love of God is the work of the Spirit giving unspeakable joy in response to the mind's perception of the demonstration of that love in Jesus Christ. In this way Christ gets the glory for the joy that we have. It is a joy in what we see in him.
Where can you see this in the Scriptures? Consider 1 Peter 1:8, "Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory." Here is an experience of great and inexpressible joy. Joy beyond words. It is not based on a physical seeing of Christ. But it is based on believing in Christ. Christ is the focus and content of the mind in this inexpressible joy.
In fact, 1 Peter 1:6 says that the joy itself is "in" the truth that Peter is telling us about the work of Christ. It says, "In this you greatly rejoice." And what is "this"? It is the truth that 1) in "His great mercy [God] has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead;" and 2) we will "obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away;" and 3), we "are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:3-5). In this we "greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory." We know something. In this we rejoice! The experience of unspeakable joy is a mediated experience. It comes through knowledge of Christ and his work. It has content.
Consider also Galatians 3:5, "Does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?" We know from Romans 5:5 that the experience of the love of God is "through the Holy Spirit who is given to us." But now Galatians 3:5 tells us that this supply of the Spirit is not without content. It is "by hearing with faith." Two things: hearing and faith. There is the hearing of the truth about Christ, and there is the faith in that truth. This is how the Spirit is supplied. He comes through knowing and believing. His work is a mediated work. It has mental content. Beware of seeking the Spirit by emptying your head.
Similarly, Romans 15:13 says that the God of hope fills us with joy and peace "in believing." And believing has content. The love of God is experienced in knowing and believing Christ because, as Romans 8:39 says the love of God is "in Christ Jesus our Lord." Nothing will be able to separate us "from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
This Advent season, look to Jesus. Consider Christ. Meditate on his glory and his work, not just casually, but intentionally. Think about the promises he made and guaranteed by his death and resurrection. Pray that God would open your eyes to the wonder of his love in these things. Renounce all known attitudes and behaviors that contradict this demonstration of love to you. Then enjoy the experience of the love of God poured out in your heart by the Holy Spirit.