What’s It Like to Be Loved by God?

God-Centered Love, Part 1

Biola University | La Mirada

In 1968, just a few miles from here, I experienced a Copernican Revolution in my own theology in which God took his place at the center and the top and the bottom and he became all things in all things, at least I have been trying now for these 34 years to put him there. And the questions that have driven me ever since those days at Fuller Seminary are, how does the glory of God, or more particularly God’s passion for his glory, relate to my passion for happiness? Everything I write and everything I say is either aiming at or flowing from those questions. How does God mean to be made much of in the universe? And what does that have to do with my deep longings to be a happy and content and everlasting person?

Understanding the Love of God

I want to share with you my most recent thoughts about this under the banner of The Glorified God and the Satisfied Soul: Reflections on Christian Hedonism, and come at it by asking these couple of questions: what does it mean for you to feel loved by God and by people? And what does it mean for you to love God? What does it mean to feel loved by God? What is it to be loved by God? And what is it to love God? So today we’ll talk about what it is to be loved by God. What is that? And then Wednesday we’ll talk about what it is to love God in view of that.

But here’s the twist that I put on those two questions. Given God’s supreme love for God, how does he love us? Given God’s radical God-centeredness, how does he love us? Given the fact that God is uppermost in God’s affections, how does he love us? Given the fact that he is devoted supremely to magnifying his name in the world, how does he love us? That’s the twist.

And then turn it around. Given all those same things about God, how do you love him in view of the way he loves you? It’s a strange and wonderful thing that we’re about to discover here. Maybe it isn’t strange to you and that would be a wonderful thing, but I find that in America where we are absolutely besotted with ourselves that this sounds strange to people. So here’s a test. Find out where you are.

Do you feel more loved by God when he makes much of you, or when he frees you and enables you to enjoy making much of him forever? Test yourself. Do you feel more loved by God when he makes much of you or when he, at the cost of his own Son’s life, enables you, frees you, and empowers you to enjoy making much of him forever? Which way do you feel most loved?

It’s almost impossible for an American to understand the love of God. Americans have defined love now for many, many years. We have a whole gospel built around it. Love is to make much of someone. To be loved and to feel love is to feel made much of. To love is to make somebody feel central and make somebody feel significant. And given that definition of love, the love of God is unintelligible. The main problem is that when you try to foist — which is what we have done now for these many decades — that definition of love on the love of God, it backfires. God’s love is not him making much of us. God’s love is his laboring, indeed suffering, to enthrall us with what is infinitely and eternally satisfying: God.

God’s love labors and suffers to break our bondage to the idol of self and to focus our attentions on the treasure of God. If God were to devote his energies to making much of you, it would be hateful because he would be detracting you from the very thing that can satisfy your soul, namely himself. If God spends time polishing the mirror in front of your face, he destroys you. But if he does everything he can, even at the cost of his Son’s life, to remove the cloud so that you can see him and make much of him, it gives you life. If you define love as being made much of you will never know the love of God. And there’s some of you in this room right now who are so in bondage to that definition of love that you find what I am saying right now absolutely incomprehensible. You have been saved by the gospel of self-esteem. It has brought you life, it has changed your life, and you can’t even imagine what I’m saying.

The Love and the Glory of God

So if you have a Bible, and I asked, do they have Bibles in Biola? He said, “They know the Bible at Biola by heart. They don’t need Bibles.” Just in case you don’t know John 11, open your Bible. What you’re hearing now is what I call a front-burner because it’s only about a year old in my thinking. It’s a way of coming at this issue that has been so powerful in my own life. And so I want you to see it. So I’m going to read John 11:1–6 to illustrate what I’ve been saying and try to point you toward it with the word of God rather than my word.

Now you know the situation here. Lazarus has a couple of sisters, Mary and Martha, and Lazarus is sick and dying and they send to Jesus to get him to come. So let’s read starting in verse one:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill (John 11:1–2).

Now the reason for John 11:2 is to underline the affection that exists between Jesus and this family, especially Mary, because what’s so striking about verse two is that the event hasn’t happened yet in the gospel of John. It happens in chapter 12. This is very strange that he would mention the event that hasn’t happened yet and it’s to underline what’s coming in terms of Jesus’s affections. He loves this family. Keep that in mind. John 11:3 continues:

So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

That’s the second underlining of the word love. Then John 11:4 says:

But when Jesus heard it he said (he shifts the categories a little bit), “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

So he says, “What’s going on here is a glory issue. This is a glory of God issue, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” God’s glory and the Son’s glory. That’s what’s at stake in this sickness. Then in John 11:5, for a third time, it says:

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

Magnifying God at All Costs

And then comes one of the most unintelligible words in the Gospel, namely the word so, or therefore. If that’s not in your Bible, change versions, seriously. It says:

So (therefore), when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

And he let Lazarus die intentionally. So now notice three things here. First, Jesus chose to let Lazarus die. John 11:6 says, “When he heard that he was sick, then he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Second, notice his motivation. It’s the glory of God. John 11:4 says, “This sickness is not going to end in death.” Well, he knew good and well it was going to end in death for a while. He was thinking, “I’m going to make sure he dies by not going to heal him.” And we know that the glory of God is at stake in his dying because when he gets there he says to Mary, “Did I not tell you if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40). The glory of God is what’s at stake here. Jesus is going to create an occasion for the glory of God to be displayed by letting his friend die. And he’ll let all of them go through four days of grief.

Here’s the third observation. This is all driven by love. Three times he says he loves them. In fact, verse five says it most perplexingly. It says, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, therefore he stayed and let him die.” Now you think that through with me. Since he loved him, he let him die, because in dying the glory of God would be displayed. What is love in this text? What is love? It is not a pain-free life. It is not sparing agony and grief and suffering. It is doing whatever you have to do, even at the cost of life, to magnify God and the Son of God. That’s love.

And we are so massively in love in America with our pain-free self-centeredness that such a definition of love is unintelligible. It’s such a radically God-centered definition of being loved that God would let me die, that he’d let my sisters go through four days of grief just to show off his glory. Why would you want a God like that? That’s the way people respond. And if that’s the way you feel, you don’t know him yet.

The High Priestly Prayer

Now I wonder if you feel we’ve overdone those six verses. If so, let’s go to John 17 and see whether or not we’re onto something here biblically. I don’t want to overdo it, I don’t want to read anything into the text that’s not there. I don’t want to press the verses too far. So let’s go to John 17 and see whether or not this is so when Jesus prays for you. Now mark this, this chapter is called the High Priestly Prayer. And Jesus is praying not only for those who are in his earshot, but for those who would believe on him through their word (John 17:20). That’s you. You are being prayed for.

And would you not agree to be prayed for by the Lord Jesus is to be loved? Would you dare say, “He’s praying for me but he doesn’t love me when he’s praying”? Would you dare say that? No, you wouldn’t and I wouldn’t. And therefore I am looking for evidence of what it is to be loved by the way he prays. All right, are you ready? Go to John 17:24. We will look at more than this, but let’s start here. This is Jesus coming to the end of his High Priestly Prayer for you:

Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

What is his highest desire for you? That you might see his glory. You must feel the shock of this. How would you feel if I came into this pulpit and said, “Do you know why I’m here? It’s because I want you to see my glory. Look at me, look at me. In fact, let me pray for you. ‘God, grant that these students would see John Piper’s glory.’” How would you feel about me? That’s exactly what he’s doing. Do you like him? Is that what it means for you to be loved by Jesus? That he comes to you and he says, “I’ll do anything to get you to look at me. I’ll do anything to get you to see me for who I am. I’ll do anything for you. I’ll die for you if you would see my glory.” I can’t talk like that. Why? I’m not God. I have to do the same thing only from outside.

If I want to love you the way Jesus loves you, I’ve got to do what Jesus did for Jesus. I’ve got to say, “Look at him, look at him,” and pray like he prayed: “Oh God, open the eyes of my heart that I may behold your glory. Satisfy me with your love in the morning that I may rejoice and be glad in you all my days. Wean me off of my love affair with the approval of my peers. Wean me off of my bondage to my appearance. Wean me off of all the money-love, all the power-love, all the popularity-love, all the grade-love, all the academic-love, and all the praise-love. Wean me, God, onto yourself so that you satisfy me totally.”

Now, the reason this is love is that you were made for God and not for mirrors, and it’s written on your heart. You know how you can know it’s written on your heart that you were made for God and not for yourself? Nobody goes to the Grand Canyon to increase their self-esteem. So why do they go in a world that is sold out to the gospel of self-esteem? Why do they go? Why do they go and stand there on the edge and look into that massive canyon in order to feel so small? Why do people go to the Alps? Why do they buy these big, glossy-paged books of mountains and rivers and mighty works of nature and put them on their coffee tables? Why do we expose ourselves to such belittling realities? Because we were made to be small before an all-satisfying God. It’s written on your heart to make much of God. It’s written on your heart that your joy consists in knowing and making much of God, being satisfied with God, and you are buying a lie if you think that you have to be made much of in order to be happy.

The Joy of Self-Forgetfulness

What you need in order to be happy is to forget about you. The genius of happiness is self-forgetfulness. Read C.S. Lewis and how he came to Jesus in Surprised by Joy. The sehnsucht (the longing) for joy for Lewis was impossible because he knew it required utter self-forgetting and that the more you thought about yourself, the more you lost the joy. And therefore the gospel of self-esteem at root is deceptive and demonic. We must get ourselves off of our preoccupation with ourselves into a glorious self-forgetfulness by which we see the all-satisfying Christ. And therefore, the love of God is the display of God for our enjoyment.

Look back at the beginning of John 17. Let’s underline it again. We’ve seen it in John 11:1–6, we’ve seen it in John 17:24, let’s see it in John 17:1–5, the first five verses of the High Priestly Prayer:

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you . . .

So his first passion, his deepest passion, is the glory of himself and the glory of his Father. Do you think that’s unloving? Do you think that’s a megalomaniac talking? Do you think that’s manipulative and abusive and you have to be the center for him to love you? No. This is his way of preserving for you the one treasure that will satisfy your soul forever. Until you become God-centered, you can’t even imagine what it is to be loved by God, because the love of God is to preserve the glory of God for your enjoyment forever. And if you don’t love the glory of God, you can’t know what it is to be loved by God. You must pray for regeneration. You must pray for the opening of the eyes of your heart so that you fall out of love with all the things that have made you happy up to this moment in your life.

Dismantling the Gospel of Self-Esteem

There are probably a lot of unbelievers in this room who have learned all the language of the self-enhancing gospel of America and have never loved God as God, have never delighted in the glory of God, and have never stood before the cross, as it says in Second Corinthians 4:4, and seen “the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” and bowed, not because your sins are forgiven, but because you have been granted by the forgiveness of sins, an amazing privilege of seeing for the first time in your life the all-satisfying Christ. Some need to be born again. You have to have eyes to see this. You have to have a change. You have to have a Copernican Revolution of your mind and heart in order to know what it is to be loved by God.

John 17:2 continues:

Since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.

“Ah, yes,” somebody says, “there it is. There it is. That’s what it is to love. That’s John 3:16. That’s what’s missing in your message. John 3:16 is missing in your message — ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him should have eternal life.’ That’s what you ought to be preaching if you want to talk about the love of God, Piper, come on.” To which I respond, as I so often do: read the next verse.

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3).

Of course it is love to die, to give eternal life to the world, but now define it biblically. It’s not eternal golf or eternal Ultimate Frisbee; it’s eternal knowledge of God, awareness of God, beholding of God, being like God, and thus having the capacity to enjoy God fully forever. That’s eternal life.

John 17:4–5 continues:

I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

Now we’re back to John 17:24 and he’s pleading for his own glory. Okay, here’s the point so far, then I’m going to look at one more text with you and be done. The point is, what does it mean to be loved by God? Does it mean to be made much of, or does it mean to be so freed, so empowered, so enabled by God — at the cost of his Son’s life, so that there could be propitiation of his wrath and justification of my ungodliness — so that now I would have the wherewithal, legally and spiritually, to behold the all-satisfying Christ? Is that what it means to be loved to you? If so, every single time God acts to uphold his glory in the Bible, he is acting in love.

This is what I had to see 34 years ago because I saw all over the Bible an absolutely God-centered God. He does everything he does for his own glory. He predestined for his own glory. He creates for his own glory. He incarnates for his own glory. He propitiates for his own glory. He sanctifies for his own glory. He comes again and consummates for his own glory. And I needed to know, how can this be love? Because I tell you, I was all wrapped up in a definition of love that required that I be made much of and not that God be made much of. And now I see that every time he acts to magnify himself and lift up himself and uphold his glory, he is upholding the treasure of my life for which I was made and which alone will satisfy my soul forever.

The Thorn in Paul’s Flesh

Here’s one last text. Perhaps I can just read it to you instead of having you look at it. This is 2 Corinthians chapter 12:7–9. It’s about the thorn in the flesh. Do you remember that story of Paul? We don’t know what the thorn is. It’s some kind of physical or relational pain. I’ll start reading at 2 Corinthians 12:7:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.

God’s aim is that Paul would not exalt himself. Satan’s aim is that he would exalt himself. So God uses Satan to sanctify Paul. It’s called a “messenger of Satan”. Satan’s design is always sin, and not exalting myself is holiness. The design of this messenger of Satan is holiness, and therefore God is using Satan to sanctify. I love the sovereignty of God over Satan. I like to laugh at Satan. What a jerk. What a fool. Do you hear that Satan? Fool.

You think by shooting Jesus, getting him on the cross, you win? You think by bringing thorns in the flesh into my life, you win? Ha. That’s what’s going on here. Continue reading at 2 Corinthians 12:8:

[Concerning this], three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.

So there are three times Paul prays, “Jesus, please take away this thorn. It hurts.” A second time he says, “Jesus, please take away this thorn. It hurts.” A third time he says, “Jesus, please take away this thorn. It hurts.” It’s like the sisters saying, “Come heal Lazarus, come heal Lazarus, come heal Lazarus!” He’s going to die. Second Corinthians 12:9 says:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Do you have any friends that would respond, saying, “I don’t care about your power, it hurts”? They might say, “You’re going to use my pain to magnify your power? No, thank you.” America is full of people who are putting God in the dock day after day because of their pain. Why? Because we are central. My pain-free ego is the center of the universe. For Paul, it was totally different. What did he say?

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).

This is the verse I get hedonism from. The word behind hedonism is the word “gladly” (hēdista) in that verse. The only way that you will be able to respond like Paul and feel loved when Jesus answers your prayer, saying, “No, I’m not going to take away the relational pain. I’m not going to take away the disease this time, rather, I’m going to be magnified,” is if Jesus’s glory is more valuable to you than your health and your relationships.