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Loving God Even When I Don’t
Posted by Clare
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You need to know this about me – I’m not always flat out in love with God.

I don’t know about you, but for years I felt guilty because I didn’t always feel the “the joy of the Lord” – this emotional high that other Christians appeared to be able to sustain. The warm, joyous, tearful feelings I do experience come most often when I’m singing praise choruses, listening to the testimony of a new believer, on a spiritual retreat or I experience the beauty of a bright, sun-filled day. They occasionally come in time of personal prayer, or when some new revelation of God washes over me. But those don’t happen every day, or even every week to me.

And, I’ve found that I can’t by an act of my will just conjure up these feelings of love for God and make them happen. I love it when I’m surprised by joy – I just can’t surprise myself into joy. I’ve tried, but when I do it feels phony and contrived.

So, in between these occasional mountain top experiences are there other ways we can demonstrate to God and others our love for him? Is it really possible to love God when we’re really not excited about him, or our hearts are heavy? Be encouraged. The answer is YES!

One parenthetical thought before we go on; I personally find it easier to love Jesus, than the Father. Perhaps it’s because when I grew up I thought of Jesus as the kinder, more gentle side of God. The Father scared the wits out of me. I was grateful to Jesus, not only for his salvation but that he stood between me and his DAD to protect me from his wrath. I’ve matured theologically, but I think some of those feelings linger and influence me today.

To simplify things I’m going to use God and the Father almost interchangeably, which again isn’t theologically correct but for all practical purposes that’s how most of us think about God anyway.

God is our spiritual father. That’s how Jesus taught us to refer to him and think of him. In fact, Paul used the word Abba, a term of endearment used by children for their father – daddy. So, years ago I began thinking about the times I felt most loved and honored by my children, other than birthdays or Father’s Day. The following are just a few ways that by an act of our will we can love God, in the everyday happenings of life.

1. Speak respectfully to God and about God to others.

“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me? Says the Lord Almighty…” Malachi 1:6a

When my children speak respectfully to me about me to others, I want to turn to my friends and say, “Did you hear that? Did you hear beyond the words – did you hear the tenderness and respect in their voice? You know, they didn’t have to say that! But they did.”

When you’re with your friends do you speak respectfully and personally about God and Jesus? I’m not talking about discussing church or the sermon. Do your friends see a tear in your eye occasionally when you talk tenderly of your love for Jesus? No using his name in a way that diminishes his majesty – just for a cheap laugh or to make a forceful point. Do you really revere God and do your friends know that you do?

I can imagine God upon hearing us speak respectfully and tenderly to him and about him to others, turning to the angels and the saints, “Did you hear that? Did you hear how much they love me and how proud they are of me? No, St. Peter at the pearly gates jokes, referring to me as “the man upstairs” or thoughtlessly invoking my name at civic gatherings to bless their food and country like I’m a spiritual rabbit’s foot. They really love me enough to honor me and my name. Those are my children!”

2. Show God you love him by obeying him, even when you don’t want to.

“This is love for God: to obey his commands.” I John 5:3a

When our children were small, they had chores. As kids they couldn’t possibly understand how their thousands of simple acts of obedience contributed to the orderly management of our large household. Neither could they have imagined at the time they were actually learning the skills of cooperation and self-sacrifice so important for their own future households, businesses and relationships. And it wasn’t important for them to always know that. They just needed to trust us and do what we asked.

So, one time I asked my son, who was about twelve at the time to do something for me that I knew he didn’t want to do, fully expecting to hear the favorite question of children and the least favorite of parents, the big “why?”. But, to my surprise he simply did it. Ironically, it was the kind of request that ought to have raised “the question”, because the reason for my request wasn’t terribly obvious! But, he just did it – no questions asked.

God loves our obedience even if our hearts are not fully into it. In fact, Jesus told a story to prove this very point. “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted? “The first”, they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Matthew 21:28-31. Would God love to have both our obedience and a good attitude about it? Of course! But, it’s clear from this story that simple obedience, even if done with a bad attitude still tells God we love him and trust him.

3. Be thankful to him for everything.

“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” I Thessalonians 5:16-18

I absolutely love it when one of my children or my friends go out of their way to call or write a note to me just to say, “thank you”. In fact, I have a file full of notes to encourage me on days when I want to hide all sharp objects. “Thank you’s” are powerful because they’re a gift to me that tells me I’m on their mind – that I’ve blessed them in some way.

What’s even more moving is when I get these thank you’s from people who are personally going through tough times. I think our Father’s ears tingle when his children are grateful even when life is junk at the moment – maybe especially when life is junk!

I believe it is just this kind of childlike love, this humble trust in the face of chaos and confusion that makes God so proud he actually brags about it to the angels. “See that? That’s my child! She’s expressing gratitude, not for what I’m giving to her, but for who she knows I am. Isn’t that amazing?” God loved Job’s devotion to him and trust right in the middle of his own personal Holocaust. It’s what God uses to rebuke Satan and his demons. This is at least part of what I think Paul means when he writes that it was Jesus’ intent that through the church (you and me), “the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms…” (Ephesians 3:10).

I’ve heard it said that gratitude is the mother of all virtues. When we take time to thank God for the little things in life – it deflates our covetous hearts. I’ve also found that the more thankful I am, the more content I am.

4. Tell God you’re sorry, then live like you are.

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” I John 1:8-9

I’ve always had a great relationship with our children. So when one of our daughters was uncharacteristically distant, I asked her if something was wrong. “It’s nothing.” (It’s always nothing.) Days later she came to me and shared something she’d done for which she was ashamed. Ironically, I knew or strongly suspected what the problem was. In any case the important thing was that she understood what she had done, was sorry for it and had made some good decisions to lessen the likelihood this would ever happen again. Seeing how terribly sad she was, I just held her and told her I loved her and how honored I was that she had confided in me.

It wasn’t only her tearful confession that moved me; it was the safeguards she put in place to keep from temptation in the future, which impressed me even more. She understood intuitively that while confession is good for the soul, repentance is better. Repentance is more than remorse. It’s disgust, even anger over our sin and a wholehearted desire to never do that sin again. If we tell God we’re sorry then he expects us to live differently if we truly are. And he loves us and loves it when we do.

Trust and Obey

I began this blog admitting I don’t always feel flat out emotionally connected to God. Yet, when I do the things I’ve just outlined, I am loving God and God loves me for doing them. The old song had it right, “Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

Question: Are there other ways you too have loved God even when you didn’t feel in love with him?

Following Jesus in Real Life


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Comments (7)
  1. Pete Deutsch said...

    Hi Mr DeGraaf,

    While leading our Men’s issues class with Community Recovery Group, (An addictive recovery class), I don’t always feel very close to god, until I witness his subtle reminders with the growth these men experience in their recovery process. I realize then, that God has held up his continued love and faith to bolster my own, lack of commitment. God has shown me the encouragement I needed.
    Thanks for the reminder that we all need refreshment in our faith.

  2. Mike Fortner said...

    Great post. I like all of these thoughts, plus one more. As I read Scripture I get the sense it isn’t always about ‘trying harder.’ Instead, the things – power, joy, wisdom, strength, etc – seem to come from Him. In fact they seem to actually BE His. So I often admit I’m cooked. I’m empty. I’m tapped out. Not my desire…just my execution. So I ask Him for it. I humbly admit I can’t do it, and I ask Him for it. “Please fill me with your joy.” And then I trust Him to take it from there.

  3. Lindsay said...

    Great post! Although I absolutely agree with all the applications you listed, I just wanted to raise one thought for your consideration.

    You mention that these are ways we can love God though “an act of our will.” I would argue, instead, that these examples are still about feelings. You would not speak respectfully about God, obey God’s commandments, etc. if you did not CARE about loving God.

    This may seem like semantic nit-picking, but I think it’s an important point because the rhetoric in the church today repeatedly subordinates the affections to rationality. But recent psychological studies continue to reveal that it is our emotions that determine our rational thinking, not the other way around.

    This is most apparent in discussion of marriage and divorce where couples are told that “love is a choice.” But someone just can’t will themselves back into love. Instead, the church focuses on helping the couple find something else they CARE about more than their partner … usually the integrity of keeping a promise. If the couple cares about keeping their marriage vows and they stay married, they have not “chosen love,” but rather made a choice based on their emotional value of keeping a commitment. If breaking a promise means nothing to the couple, however, they are not going to choose to stay married.

    The most important question then, becomes not how to bend our will, but how to shape our affections to make sure we care about the things that are important to God.

    • Clare said...

      Lindsay, thank you for your thoughtful questions/comments. The real point I was trying to make is that, like in marriage there are times we don’t feel flat out in love emotionally. However, when we act lovingly and kind and respectfully the other person actually feels loved by us. Ironically when that other person feels that way, often they return the affection and we grow in our emotional love for them as well. This I know, regardless of any studies, by an act of the will I can convey to God my love for him even in the middle of depression.

      Did I do justice to your question?

  4. Lindsay said...

    Thanks of the response!

    We may agree to disagree on this subject, but I still think you’re representing an under-developed view of emotions … i.e. emotions = infatuation/spiritual high. Emotions are also deep and enduring and while you may, through an act of will, convey love to God through a time of depression, you do so because you still feel love for Him. I’m only disagreeing with your use of “in love emotionally” as a superficial experience while volition is presented as the deep experience. Instead I see emotion as the foundation of our choices.

    • Clare said...

      Good news! I think we do agree that an act of the will is a deeper level of commitment than an emotional response.

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