Sarah’s father had been a demanding tyrant. His so-called “love” for his daughter was cruelly and continually dangled in front of her like the proverbial carrot on a stick. His promise sounded tantalizing to Sarah but ultimately rung hollow: “If you look pretty, I’ll love you. If you make good grades, I’ll love you. If you are successful and helpful and don’t embarrass me in front of others, I’ll love you.”
I’d heard similar stories before. But that didn’t make her words any less difficult to endure.
“I was never quite pretty enough, slim enough, smart enough,” Sarah told me. She never did get a bite of that carrot. All she could remember was the bitter aftertaste of her father’s disdain and rejection. Sarah and I spent considerable time working through the destructive consequences of her lack of experience with a father’s love.
But we weren’t making much headway . . . until I asked the question, “What does God feel when he looks at you?”
“Pity,” she snapped back, never pausing to think about it.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I’m pitiful. I’m pathetic,” she said.
For the next hour or so I explained to Sarah how much God loves her. I labored at finding just the right words to convince her it was true. It was tough going. I explained the depth of his love as expressed in the cross of Christ. I used images, vivid metaphors, and countless word pictures. They all failed. The idea of a loving Father who enjoyed her was incomprehensible to Sarah. Nothing seemed to make sense.
GOD SINGS OVER YOU
Then I had her read Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
“That’s how God feels about you, Sarah!” I told her. “He looks at you, he thinks of you—and he sings for joy!”
She was stunned. “God sings? God sings? Over me?”
After a few moments of shocked silence, tears began to well up in her eyes and eventually streamed down her cheeks. “Sam, are you sure?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“But I’m so pathetic,” she protested. “I really am. I’m overweight, and I’d die if anyone saw the inside of my house right now. It’s almost as messy as I am! My husband is furious at me again. I can’t do anything right. And you say God sings over me with joy? I doubt it! More likely, he’s screaming in disgust. My dad used to do that.”
Again I asked her to read the passage: The Lord my God is in my midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over me with gladness; he will quiet me by his love; he will exult over me with loud singing.
The tears returned.
GOD ENJOYS YOU
Sarah’s reaction to Zephaniah 3:17 was dramatic but not unusual. I’ve seen it again and again. It has led me to a simple but startling conclusion: what makes life livable is enjoying the joy that comes from knowing that you are enjoyed by God.
This in no way minimizes our responsibility to love God. The greatest commandment in the Law is that we love the Lord with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind (Matt. 22:37). Not loving God is, therefore, the worst of all human sins. What I have in mind, though, is his love for us, his deep, emotional, loving movement toward people he created in his image. So let’s not reverse what the Bible sets in order: “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10, NKJV). Our love for God is a reflex of his love for us. He loved us first! We must be careful not to invert the sequence.
Tomorrow no longer terrifies when your soul knows God’s delight in you.
I’ve been a Christian for 51 years. I’ve been a pastor for 38 years. I guess that makes me “old” and somewhat experienced. In any case, I’ve seen more than I care to remember of human pain and predicaments. I’ve counseled rebellious teens and lonely senior citizens. I’ve spent hours with bitter wives and their passive husbands. I’ve cried with victims of sexual abuse and rejoiced with those set free from bondage. Their problems may be different. Some are men, others are women. Some are old, others young. But the one thing they share in common is the deeply felt need of the human soul to know and feel that God loves and enjoys them.
The one thing that gives us hope, the one thing that conquers despair and brings strength for the struggle is the assurance that no matter how bad the problem may be, God loves us. Pain becomes bearable and tomorrow no longer terrifies when your soul is touched with the reality of God’s delight in you. That is why I have written this book.