Increasing Your Capacity to Receive God's Love
1 John 4:7-21
We come now to the deepest passage in this letter. It personifies what one devout scholar said about John’s gospel: “It is shallow enough for babies to wade in—but deep enough for elephants to drown in” (EXPLAIN). Let’s read it (read 4:7-21 NLT).
The theme of this passage is simple/shallow: It is God’s will for each of us to be “perfected in love” (4:12,17,18). (“Perfected” does not mean sinless; it means fully developed, mature, attain expert competence [“HE PERFECTED THE ART OF FURNITURE-MAKING”].) God created each of us to become uniquely and fully developed in our ability to love, or as Jesus puts it elsewhere, that we “love others in the same way that I love you” (Jn.13:34; 15:12). So here is a very simple but challenging question: “Are you more proficient at this than you were a year ago?”
This is God’s test for true spirituality. John bookends this passage by reminding us that unless our answer is “yes,” we do actually love God no matter what we tell ourselves and others (review/paraphrase 4:7,8,20,21; cf. other passages).
This is also God’s test for real success. No matter how much more wealthy, physically fit, career advanced, popular, comfortable, etc. I am—if I am not becoming a better lover of my spouse, children, neighbors, work-mates, friends, the poor, my enemies, etc., I am failing in the classroom of life! Conversely, no matter how unimpressive my gains may be in these others areas, if I have become a better lover I am succeeding in life!
This much is simple/shallow. But when we ask: “How do I do this?” the pool deepens.
John’s answer, woven throughout this passage, is two-fold. If I want to be perfected in love, I must develop/increase both my capacity to receive God’s love, and I must develop/increase my capacity to give his love away to others. There is a dynamic relationship between these two aspects of being perfected in love. On the one hand, since God is the source of all true love, we must increase our capacity to receive God’s love in order to be better able to give it away to others. This is the point of 4:19. But on the other hand, we need to give God’s love away to others in order increase our capacity to receive God’s love. This is the point of 4:12. (DIAGRAM; SPIRITUAL BREATHEING/LUNG CAPACITY)
It gets even deeper, because being perfected in love develops both sequentially and simultaneously. We tend to think sequentially about this: first I’ll learn how to receive God’s love, and then after I master this I’ll learn to give his love away to others. And there is some basic truth to this, as we’ll see. I’m going to teach this truth sequentially over the next two weeks (TOPICS) because it’s easier to get a handle on this subject this way. But there is a sense in which this sequentialism is misleading, because what this passage teaches and what real life confirms is that God is always multi-tasking in this area—simultaneously initiating our development in both receiving and giving his love (PRACTICE INHALING ONLY FOR 6 MONTHS?)
All right, let’s talk about how to develop our ability to receive God’s love. My goal this morning is simply to give you a basic map to guide you as you travel this path with God. John breaks this into two stages—initially allowing God to indwell you with his love, and then continually drawing upon God’s love.
Allow God to indwell you with God’s love (4:9-15)
You can’t give to others what you don’t have in yourself. Before you can give God’s love to others, you must be indwelt by God’s love yourself. John explains how to do this in 4:9-15. It is super-simple, but many people skip over it—so listen carefully!
If you want to be indwelt by God’s love, you need to first understand how much God loves you (read 4:9,10). He loves you so much that he gave you the ultimate gift (he sent his Son) to pay the ultimate price (he laid down his life to pay for your sins)—even though he knew you were completely undeserving (not only didn’t love God, but were a rebel and transgressor). If you were the only human being who ever rebelled against God, he loves you so much that he would have sent Jesus to die for just for you. You may say, “This is true good to be true”—but it is true. You may say, “No one else has ever loved me this way”—but God does love you this way, and he wants to personally indwell you with his love.
How? If you want to be indwelt by God’s love, you need to personally agree with God that Jesus is indeed your Savior (read 4:15). “Confess” means literally to say the same thing as—to agree from the heart. To confess that Jesus is the Son of God is to tell God in your own words that you agree with him when he says that you need a Savior and that Jesus is that Savior. Some people do this by talking to God silently; others do this by talking to God aloud. Some people do this alone; others do it in the presence of others. Some people say this with their own words; others do this by praying a written prayer that says this. What matters is that you personally tell God that you agree with him that you need a Savior and that Jesus is your Savior.
When you confess Jesus is your Savior, he sends his Spirit to indwell you so you can experience his love (read 4:13). He becomes your loving heavenly Father and you become his beloved child—and his Spirit enables you to feel his love for you. This is why people who have recently received Christ are excited—they have experienced the greatest thing possible for human beings to experience—they know are loved by God!
Are you indwelt by God’s love? Has God’s Spirit indwelt your heart? Have you confessed to God that Jesus is your Savior? If not, why not settle this today (prayer at end of meeting)?
Draw continually upon God’s love (4:16-19)
But it’s not enough to be indwelt by God’s love. In order to develop in loving others, you also have to continually draw upon the love of God that already indwells you. John explains how to do this in 4:16,17 (read NIV). Notice the two ways he says we do this.
“We know... the love God has for us.” Our understanding and appreciation of God’s love for us should be ever-fresh and ever-increasing. God’s love is like a fine diamond—a multi-faceted wonder of brilliance, depth and clarity. We should keep discovering new facets of God’s love, and we should keep discovering greater depths of each facet. If I am honestly bored by the truth that God loves me (and to my shame I admit that I sometimes am bored by this), this is an alarm bell for my spiritual life signaling the need to learn more about God’s love.
The main way we grow in our knowledge of God’s love is by prayerfully reflecting on what scripture says about God’s love. Ask God to open the eyes of your heart to his love (Eph.3:17-19), and then read scripture looking for what it teaches about God’s love. Look for how God loves you not only in the easiest sections (LETTERS & PSALMS), but also in the other genres (NARRATIVE; WISDOM; PROPHETIC; APOCALYPTIC). When passages speak to your heart, speak them back to God (RECENT EXAMPLE). Sing spiritual songs that focus on God’s love (RECENT EXAMPLE). This will refresh your heart with God’s love, and it will build a growing and deepening foundation of God’s love for you.
“We... rely on the love God has for us.” As you learn more about how God loves you, he also provides you with many personal and practical ways to rely on his love. And as you choose to rely on his love, your experience of his love will expand and your confidence in his love will increase. Here are some of these ways:
You can rely on God’s love by choosing to draw near to him (especially when you feel unworthy) rather than avoid him. This is what John means in 4:18 (NLT). We all tend to make our own performance the basis for our right to come into God’s presence. God says we are never worthy to come into his presence on the basis of what I have done for him, but we are always worthy to come into his presence on the basis of what Jesus has done for us. RECENT EXAMPLE: When was the last time you did this?
You can rely on God’s love by choosing to let his people love you (especially in your weakness and sin) rather than remaining aloof and self-sufficient. Sometimes drawing near to God is not enough. Sometimes he waits until you open up to his people and let them know how about your sin and hurt and doubt—and then he comforts your heart through their love (PAST & RECENT EXAMPLES). What about you? You may need to get involved with other Christians so you can do this when you need to (HOME GROUPS)!
You can rely on God’s love by choosing to thank God for his love (especially when you have painful circumstances) rather than grumbling and complaining. Chronic grumbling and complaining (differentiate from expressing pain to God/others) signals unbelief in God’s love. We can’t wait until we feel thankful to give thanks. We have take ourselves in hand and (starting wherever we can) name how God blessed us and personally thank him for these blessings. What’s your complaining/thankfulness ratio been lately?
You can rely on God’s love by choosing to give his love to others (especially when you feel needy & inadequate) rather than waiting until you feel fully loved or adequate. This may sound contradictory—but this is the dynamic relationship I was talking about earlier. When I withhold God’s love from others, this shows that I don’t trust his to love me—and my capacity to receive his love shrinks. This is why habitually selfish Christians are never excited about God’s love. But when I choose to trust God’s love for me by giving his love to others even when I feel empty, God’s love refreshes my soul as it pours through me—and my capacity to receive and appreciate God’s love grows (EXAMPLES). What’s your “throughput
DISCUSSION: How have you recently chosen to rely on God’s love? What was the result?