Sarah Nelson, a listener from Tallahassee writes in: “Pastor John, I’ve been reading Joe Rigney’s book, The Things of Earth, and reflecting on the correlation between our limits as creatures and our love for God. Seeing as we are unable to love an infinite God as finite beings, Rigney speaks of the alternative of loving God supremely, fully, and in a way ever-expanding. How would you describe or define the practical differences between these two categories? How do I know if I’m feeling false guilt for trying to love God infinitely, which goes against my creaturely design, verses a right guilt for not loving God supremely and fully?”
Well, I think I’m going to say something that will at first be discouraging to Sarah, sorry. Hang on. If I understand what she’s struggling with, that will probably be the case. And yet, I think what I’m going to say will in the end be massively encouraging to her and the rest of us who share her struggle. So, hang on. Let’s clarify what she’s struggling with. What you just said went by pretty fast and it might be too complicated for some of our listeners to grasp the distinction she’s making.
“Jesus didn’t just command us to love God more than all. He commanded us to love him with all.”
She points out that the finite human being cannot love in a qualitatively infinite way — and I say “qualitatively” because temporally our love will be infinite. That is, it will last forever. It will be without end. But our love for God will never correspond to God’s love in the sense of being infinite in a quality or kind and, therefore, she points out rightly that we should not feel guilty for falling short of infiniteness when God has designed us to be finite. Well taken. Good point.
On the other hand, she says that God has called us to love him supremely, which I take to mean more than we love anything else, or anyone else, and that certainly is true. Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me [or son or daughter more than me] is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37), and then she asks how she can know whether any particular guilt feeling that she has about not loving God is false guilt for falling short of doing what she was never designed to do, or real guilt which is a falling short of precisely what she was designed to do and commanded to do; namely, love God supremely.
Now, before I answer, let me make the problem worse, and that’s where the discouragement may come. Jesus didn’t just command us to love God supremely — more than we love anything else. He commanded us to love God totally, or comprehensively; that is, with all of our heart. To love him, not just with more of our heart than we love anything else, but to love God with all of our heart. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–39).
So now, Sarah has to add this to her guilt struggle. She will not only want to know if she has fallen short of loving God supremely. She will also want to know if she’s falling short of loving God comprehensively, or totally — with all her heart. Not just 95% of her heart while she loves the rest of the things in the world with 5%, which might have given some comfort. But now it won’t because 95% is not all of her heart, and Jesus says you’re supposed to love God with all of your heart. Now, it’s precisely this difficulty — for me, anyway — of measuring our love for God in this way that determines how I’m going to answer Sarah’s question and help her with her struggle, because it’s mine, too.
“Christ’s gospel offer declares us innocent of all faults, including the ones we can’t see.”
Frankly, I don’t know how to sort through what aspects of my failure to love God are false guilt and what aspects are true guilt. The Bible teaches me that the human heart, my heart, is desperately sick. Who can know it? That’s Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” So, it seems to me that the Bible itself does not hold out very much hope to us that we can know ourselves accurately at these complicated and profound levels, to which Sarah might respond, “Well, that’s not encouraging! Must I live, then, with a constant sense of uncertainty and vague guilt feelings and not enjoy peace with God?”
To which my answer is: No — you are not condemned to that. God does not want you to live without peace. He wants you to enjoy sweet contentment and a profound sense of assurance that he loves you and accepts you and forgives you and will receive you in the end. The pathway — now this is getting at the essence of my answer — the pathway that he gives to that peace is not by bestowing on you, or me, an infallible capacity to discern our own errors, but a gospel that cleanses so deeply that it remedies the very sins you can’t even see or feel. For example, Psalm 19:12, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults.”
Now, isn’t the point of Psalm 19:12, that verse, that we will never get to the bottom of our sin and our guilt so that we can know it well enough to discern all that is false guilt and all that is true guilt, and confess it perfectly? That whole approach is just hopeless. It is for me, anyway, after 70 years. So, the remedy that he says doesn’t lie in that kind of discernment. It lies in the declaration of God that we are innocent even of the measures of guilt that we cannot discern — and there are always some. You don’t know your heart. Nobody knows the depth of his own sinfulness. “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults.” That’s what the gospel offer in Christ does: declares us innocent of all faults, including the ones we can’t see.
Here’s the way Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 4:4, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” Now, he didn’t lose his assurance when he said that, because he knows what the Lord is going to judge him on the basis of. Isn’t one of the points of saying that my awareness of all my faults, or my non-awareness of my faults, is not decisive in whether I will be saved? The Lord will make that determination, and he has given us the gospel that Christ died for our sins — even the ones we can’t see — so that we might be forgiven and justified.
“God wants you to enjoy a profound sense of assurance that he loves you and forgives you.”
Here’s the way Paul says it positively and with sweeping glory. I love this verse. Acts 13:38–39, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers” — and sisters — “that through this man” — Jesus — “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed” — or, justified — “from everything from which you could not be freed” — justified — “by the law of Moses.” Everything. The one who believes in Jesus is justified from everything — if you believe in Jesus.
So, I think what this means, practically, now, for our friend is that we should daily appropriate the gospel of the blood of Jesus to cleanse our conscience and to give us peace with God and then, from that hope-filled position, we should be on the alert. And if we detect our love for any created person, or any created thing, rising to compete with our love for God, we should repent and ask for forgiveness and fly to Jesus and seek help to see God more clearly and love him more dearly.