God's Love is Messy
I don’t like to be told things I already know. I’m not sure anyone does, but to me it’s like a pet peeve - irrationally annoying. Sometimes this makes me an impatient, irritable person, but there is a silver lining to this disposition: I love learning, and, even more so, I love the experience of having something I thought I knew illuminated for me in a new way. I had the privilege of this experience at the end of Pastor Jim’s message this past Sunday, when he wove a familiar scripture into the weekly readings: John 3:16.
Maybe you already said it in your head: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (NRSV).
This quote often feels to me like an answer to a test question: Question 7. What is the definition of Christianity? And if you asked me to explain it before this Sunday, I would have said something like, “John 3:16 explains why God sent God’s son. God loved the world, so God sent Jesus.”
Pastor Jim offered a different interpretation. He proposed this verse doesn’t answer the question of why God expressed love to the world, but how God expressed that love.
Not the why of God’s love, but the how.
This distinction doesn’t simply split hairs. It distinguishes between two different modes of thinking. Consider the difference between the following two questions Why do you go to work? and How do you go to work? The first questions asks for motivation. The second asks for directions.
Both are important, but the why of God is actually pretty straightforward: love. God loves us. It’s the how where things get messy. Think about the life of Jesus. Love doesn’t get much messier than that.
Jesus Christ, our Lord and savior, was conceived under suspicious circumstances, born in a feeding trough, forced to become a refugee in Egypt, hunted by officials throughout his entire ministry, betrayed by his own followers, and put to death on a tree.
Those aren’t the kind of directions that show up in motivational books.
The exact steps we take as we follow Jesus look a little different. We have different gifts and talents. Jesus could see into people’s hearts. We bake. Or write. One constant bridges both stories: love gets messy. God chose the messiest possible way to redeem humanity.
For us, messy can mean awkward, uncomfortable, vulnerable, and painful. That is what love often feels like at first. Sure, on the other end we find comfort, healing, and peace, but in the moment there is nothing comfortable about consoling a friend whose loved one has died. There is nothing easy about admitting we have wronged someone. And there is nothing peaceful about disrupting our schedules to get the physical or emotional help we need to heal. These are messy, awkward situations in which words often fail us and we walk away wondering if we’ve done the right thing or if our efforts were even worth it.
We are hard-wired to interpret these doubts as failures, as reasons to stay home and not engage. But reflecting on this how of God’s love reminds me that such moments are opportunities for faith, for trusting that God has put the right words in our mouth, for believing that God works in the silence of our hearts even when we’re unaware.
As I write, I realize that many of these lessons are things that I already know, but just because I know them doesn’t mean I always do them well. I often avoid situations where I won’t know exactly what to say or choose to not say anything in moments when I should. But as I write, I also pray for God’s Grace to embrace the next messy, awkward opportunity to experience God’s love.