Imagine a world where everyone knew they were loved unconditionally.
In that kind of a world, many of the problems we have today would probably disappear. Not all of them to be sure, but many of the demons that plague us would vanish. Unconditional love is the greatest gift in the world. It gives you a sense of self-worth, confidence, and assurance that nothing else can give you. People spend their whole lives looking for it. By its very definition, you can’t buy it, you can’t earn it, you can’t do anything to get it. It’s the one great equalizer in society because everyone wants it and whether you get it has nothing to do with wealth, fame, or power. In fact, it’s probably the one thing that’s harder to get the more successful you become because you can’t help but wonder if people love you because of who you are or for what you have. But God loves us unconditionally, no matter how much we have or don’t have, no matter how much we do or don’t do – God loves us anyway. Our passage this morning shares that message with us.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. – 1 John 4:7-12; 19-21
We love because he first loved us.
As parents, we experience the kind of love God has for us most strongly with our children. We feel it right from the moment of their birth. Or even before then. When Cassie was pregnant with Emma, I used to talk to Emma everyday. Before bed each night, I’d put my head next to Cassie’s stomach and talk to my little unborn baby girl, telling her about my day, about how I can’t wait for her to come out, and saying “good night.” Sometimes I’d randomly just go up to Cassie’s stomach and just for fun say “Helloooooo in there.” It was probably a bit embarrassing for Cassie, because I’d do it whenever the mood struck – at home, at the mall, in the car – just whenever. One night, Cassie started getting some unusual pains and we rushed to the hospital, worried that something had gone wrong. We sat in this cold, sterile intake room waiting for Cassie to get some kind of medical scan done, and I remember holding her hand and just feeling completely helpless. The worst part was when they wheeled Cassie away. They wouldn’t even let me go with her and I sat in this little, tiny waiting room all by myself with Law & Order on the television above me. I remember thinking about how much I loved my little girl who I hadn’t even seen yet except on some fuzzy sonogram, and praying everything would be alright. I hadn’t ever felt that anxious before. Thankfully, it was just a scare and about seven months later, Emma would come out just fine, but I felt like just for a moment I had a glimpse of God’s unconditional love for us – that deep love of God that reaches out to us even before we realize we need it.
It’s that kind of love that John is talking about in this letter.
It’s the love that comes before we even realize we ARE loved. In Methodism we call this prevenient grace – the unmerited, undeserved, unasked-for love of God that comes before we even know there IS a God. And it’s this unconditional love that motivates God to send Jesus on our behalf. Not because we behaved particularly well. Not because we did some great deed for God. But because he knew it was what we needed. It’s what we do for those we love. That’s why John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” When John tells us that we need to love one another in the same way that God loves us, this is the kind of love he’s talking about – the unconditional, self-sacrificing, put-yourself-out-there kind of love. We don’t do this because we need to “pay God back” or to balance some kind of cosmic debt. It isn’t love if it requires payment. We don’t do it to store up God’s good will. Again, that isn’t love. Look at what it says in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 6, Jesus tells the crowd to love their enemies. He says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.” It doesn’t take any effort to love those who already love you because you expect love in return. Real love is being able to offer it without any expectation, to love the way God loves us. When we are able to love like that, we have a deeper understanding of God’s love for us.
Love is essential. When we are loved, we do better in life.
As a father, there is a unique role we play in the lives of our children and a reason God created us to be fathers in the first place. It’s not only a duty, but an honor to be a father. As more research is done, it becomes clearer and clearer that fathers are an important part of a child’s development not just because they are a “second parent” but men specifically interact and behave in ways that help their children become more well-rounded, well-developed people. Studies have shown that having a loving, involved father increases a child’s chance of getting A’s in school by 43% and children are 33% less likely to repeat a grade. 43% more likely to get A’s. Children with fathers who play with them on average have higher IQs “as well as better linguistic and cognitive capabilities,” meaning they tend to be more sophisticated in both speech and thinking. Children with involved fathers tend to be more sociable, exhibit better self-control, and tend to be more popular. They were less likely to lie, experience depression, and more likely to engage in pro-social behavior. The more we learn about fathers, the more we realize how important they are. Not that mothers are any less important, but too often in society the job of raising children has fallen on mothers. The well-being and welfare of a child rests solely on her shoulders when it should be shared by both parents. Fathers have a deeper responsibility than society gives them credit for or often expects of them, but not less than what God expects. In Ephesians we hear from Paul that fathers are responsible for bringing up their children in the “training and instruction of the Lord” and are called not to exasperate them. In the letter to the Colossians, Paul writes that fathers should not embitter their children, or they will become discouraged. God places upon fathers an expectation of love and encouragement that is important in how they grow up.
Love is a choice.
Love isn’t just a feeling. Love is a choice. We shouldn’t love our children just when we feel like loving them. We shouldn’t love them when they deserve it. We shouldn’t make them earn our love. We should love them simply because they are our children. But what we SHOULD do and what we DO do are not always the same. Ultimately, love is still a choice as evidenced by the unfortunate number of fathers out there who are not involved in their children’s lives. One in three children live in a fatherless household. 48% of those see their children less than once a month. 31% say they don’t even call or email once a month. We choose what’s important in our lives. We choose who to love and how to love even if it’s only ourselves. It is a choice we make moment by moment just as God constantly chooses to love us despite our rebelliousness. And just as we are loved by God, we must also choose to love our children so that when they explore faith for themselves, they have an idea of what it means to have a loving God in Heaven. It’s hard to imagine a loving Father above when right here ours is absent. Love is a choice. And God chooses to love us everyday. We must choose to love also.
We don’t always realize the importance of the role we play in the lives of our children.
Academically, socially, and spiritually, too. How involved a father is in the faith life of their children influences greatly the future faith of their children as well. Fathers who go to church regularly have a greater impact on the future of their children being in church than their mothers. In fact, if a father goes to church regularly with their mother, 75% of their children will still be in church either regularly or irregularly as adults. If a father doesn’t go to church but the mother does only 39% of their children will go to church at all, with only 2% being regular attenders. As a father, we have a greater responsibility to our children’s well-being than we often think. We influence not just their life here, but their eternal life as well. On this Father’s Day, I want to encourage you to show your unconditional love to the people important in your life. Encourage, embolden, and love your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren so that they may know not only your love but the model of love God has for them.