Our Free Methodist mission statement says simply that our reason for being comes down to three things: love God, love people and make disciples. The first and foremost of these three — the foundation of it all — is to love God.
This primary call of a Christian can be misunderstood by exaggerating any aspect of it. For instance, some take the call to love God above all else as pure demand, to be dutifully obeyed by whatever determination we can muster. It is a command, after all. Jesus quoted verses from Deuteronomy when He named it the greatest commandment: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30–31).
To those who equate love with duty, aligning all the powers of our will with reverent regard for God and obedience to His law is what God requires as our chief aim. Love equals right actions, with no regard for relationship or emotion. Our proper response to God is to know the right thing and do it.
The opposite tendency is to hear the word “love” sentimentally. If love for God is a feeling, then we should constantly try to conjure up the right emotions. Logically oriented personalities can never or rarely achieve this heartfelt devotion; poetic descriptions by others leave them baffled. If loving God is all about feelings of adoration and worship, we may chase this experience through repetitious praise music or other attempts to recreate the memory of a transcendent connection we once felt. To bring our “heart, soul, mind and strength” to God means to be all in, all the time, with all our powers so we can always feel devoted to God. Right actions and obedient choices take a back seat to our emotional state in defining how God wants to be loved.
If we’re not familiar with other religions, we might not realize how radical it is for the Christian to relate to God in terms of love in the first place. Deities normally demand appeasement or submission, not love.
Most radical of all is the Christian claim that the invitation to love God springs from God’s very being as a sacred community of three whose creative energy is love. God is not solitary but has existed from eternity past in a mutually loving Trinity. Jesus alluded to this as He prayed, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24).
Genesis 1 reveals the Spirit of God brooding over Creation, drawing forth life, beauty and goodness, climaxing in the creation of human beings in God’s image. The love of the triune Godhead overflows to the created ones. Made in the image of a God who exists in eternal love, we were made by love and for love. Therefore, our love for God is grounded in God’s extravagant prior love for us.
The Old Testament continues to reveal God’s essential nature as love, expanding the meaning of the term. In Exodus we read: “Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin’” (34:5–7).
This God invites the people of Israel into a covenant relationship in which God offers love and loyalty and asks for a corresponding exclusive devotion from the people. This is the pattern: God loves and commits first and offers a relationship based on mutual faithfulness. Many passages throughout the Bible reveal this order of things, but perhaps the most succinct is the Apostle John’s statement, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
If our capacity to love God is reciprocal, offering back to God that which has first been given to us, how can we describe that first love? For thousands of years, mystics and theologians, preachers and everyday “beloved ones” have tried to capture in words the indescribable. They have used potent images like God pouring energy into the soul — drawing out greater vitality and love — and forceful terms like “hungry love” and “stormy love” (the words of 14th century Flemish mystic John Ruysbroeck) that elicit storms of love in response. Like 20th century British theologian Evelyn Underhill, they describe love that encompasses “agony, passion, beauty, sternness and pity” and results in selfgiving love or charity in the recipient (fmchr.ch/eunderhill). Following biblical imagery, God’s love has been envisioned as that of a caring shepherd, a good father, a protective mother bear, a loyal friend, and even a divine lover and bridegroom. Each metaphor reveals an aspect of this God who is Love.
The supreme example of love is Jesus, who freely gave His life in sacrifice for our sake. In Philippians, we read that Jesus humbled Himself “by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross” (2:8). And in Romans, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8).
Transforming + Empowering
Ordinary people transformed by this divine love can respond in heroic acts of self-giving. The biblical story and the story of the church down through the ages are filled with examples of the transformative power of God’s love in the human heart. Love for God emanates in humble service to the poor and powerless, works of justice and mercy near and far, forgiveness for those who have caused harm, carrying the mission of God to the ends of the earth, bold proclamation of the gospel of grace even under persecution, battling the forces of evil in their many guises, and countless examples of compassionate, sacrificial service to one’s family, church, community and world.
Completely comprehending this divine love cannot be accomplished by human wisdom or reason, even in a lifetime of effort. The Apostle Paul prays that the Ephesian Christians and all of God’s holy people — by extension including us — will be supernaturally empowered to grasp this incomprehensible love: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17b– 19).
His sequence is this: First, we become grounded (rooted, established) in the experience of love. Let that soak in for a minute! Advancing toward grasping the enormity of God’s love begins by first experiencing love at ground level and below, down to our roots. This essential starting point prepares us to receive the power, in community, to comprehend at increasing levels the expansive dimensions of Christ’s love for us and, by implication, for one another. This growth leads to the seeming impossibility of knowing something that surpasses knowledge, this ultimate love. Why? Not just to apprehend a fact, but so that together we can be filled with the overflowing fulness of God.
Knowing Leads to Loving
I hope you’ve been privileged to know someone so winsome and attractive that people comment, “To know her is to love her.” Does a name and face come to mind for you? Far more profoundly than in the case of a lovely person, this is true of the Living God. To know God is to love God. This should be our quest. All our acts of worship and spiritual disciplines have as their aim this fuller and deeper knowledge of God, so that as we know God more, we will love God more.
As Jesus taught, the commands to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves cannot be separated. Loving God leads to loving people — even ourselves! To know God is to know love and to become loving. The Apostle John put it this way, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7–8).
To love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength is a big enough challenge for a lifetime. The longer we live and press on to love God, the more we yearn to place our integrated selves — body, emotions, intellect and will — at God’s disposal, available for God’s purposes, as our act of responsive love. Our fragmented and distracted selves come together to will one thing; in this centering we find peace.
What holds us back from receiving God’s love? Often it is fear. If we can catch a glimpse of the goodness and love at the heart of God, we can lose our fear and surrender to this power that pursues us. In his “Confessions,” St. Augustine wrote of his regret for wasting the early years of his life before his conversion, “Oh Beauty so old and so new! Too late have I loved Thee!”
Like the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11–32), Augustine had run from the Father’s love and squandered years of his life. Yet when he came to himself and found the courage and humility to return to the Father, he discovered mercy, welcome, honor and belonging. All he had sought in the far country had been waiting for him back home in the Father’s house. Although in his humiliation, the Prodigal Son offered to become his Father’s servant, the Father would have none of that! He fully restored him to sonship, with all its rights and privileges.
In the same way, God gives the Holy Spirit to us so we can escape the prison of fear and know that we are God’s very own, beloved children. “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:15- 16).
John Wesley, founder of Methodism, championed this “inward witness of the Spirit” (fmchr.ch/jwesley). By a powerful personal experience of God’s indwelling Spirit, he realized that God works to make the believer “perfect in love.” Wesley testified of his own transformation and taught on this New Testament theme, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). What a hope-filled doctrine! The One who loves us perfectly desires to overcome our fear with love, completing us and freeing us for His holy use. We will never advance to perfection in performance or overcome the possibility of failure, but our motive can become pure love.
“Do You Love Me?”
At the very end of Jesus’ time on earth, standing on the seashore like the first time they had met, Jesus asked a pressing question of his friend Peter. “Do you love me?” And Peter answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus repeated the question and Peter repeated his answer. The third time Jesus asked, Peter was hurt. He replied, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.” Jesus’ response all three times was to call him to ministry on Jesus’ behalf, “Feed my lambs.” “Take care of my sheep.” “Feed my sheep.”
This is an amazing, poignant scene (John 21:15–19). Imagine! The incarnate God “popping the question” to a mere human in the most vulnerable way. Like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof ” asking his wife, Golde, “Do you love me?” Jesus wants to hear from Peter the most personal words, “I love you.”
In the “Fiddler” lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Golde reviews their 25 years of shared marital life with all its work and hardships, then ends with, “For 25 years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him, 25 years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Tevye triumphantly proclaims, “Then you love me!” She admits, “I suppose I do.” “And I suppose I love you too” (fmchr.ch/fiddler).
Both Peter and Jesus could have listed Peter’s actions showing his love — he had left all to follow Jesus. For three years he had been apprenticed to this rabbi, observing and learning and being mentored in the deepest truths of life. But beyond the realm of teaching and learning, following and taking on the role of disciple, preparing for even greater leadership in this movement in the future, Jesus wanted to hear in Peter’s own voice what was in Peter’s heart. “Do you love me?”
I hope you never get over the astonishing reality that the God of the universe wants your love. Whether expressed in rapturous song or mundane sheep-feeding faithfulness, I pray you’ll never grow tired of offering yourself back to the Lover of your Soul in wholehearted devotion. It’s your reason for being.
Bishop Linda Adams, D.Min., was elected to the Board of Bishops at General Conference 2019 after serving 11 years as the director of International Child Care Ministries. She previously served as a pastor in New York, Illinois and Michigan. As a bishop, she oversees Free Methodist ministries in the North and North Central portions of the United States and also in Latin America.2