Most of us, I suspect, assume that God’s love is best measured by the way he treats us. We look to our circumstances as evidence of God’s delight and approval. Enriched, gifted, or attractive folks are on God’s good side; those whose circumstances or abilities are marginal to poor must be on his bad side.
That means that for a spiritually sensitive person any decline in circumstances can be doubly troubling: partly because of the loss itself and more significantly because we seem to have fallen out of God’s favor.
Listen, then, to the 17th century English preacher, Richard Sibbes: “Outward things are no evidence of God’s love to us or his interest in us” (Dave Bish, ed., The Sunshine of the Gospel, 38). Presumably that means both positively and negatively: gains are no certain signal of God’s pleasure nor are losses a sign of his unhappiness.
Can he be right? And if he is, does it change the ways we think about God?
According to Paul in Philippians 4:11 he is right—“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” So, too, Joseph (see Genesis 37-47) in his unjust imprisonment of more than a decade found that even in his unhappy setting the Lord was “with” him and “blessed” him. The man born blind in John 9 was there because of God’s purpose to express his glory to and through him.
We know, of course, that on occasions God extends or withholds his blessings on the basis of obedience: the people of Israel were warned of that connection in Deuteronomy and discovered God’s unhappiness towards them in Habakkuk’s day. But even then love is not necessarily absent: the Lord disciplines those he loves (Hebrews 12:6). There are also times when God in his jealous anger punishes sinners to end their promotion of evil attitudes and practices. We can consider the case of the Old Testament Amorites on this (Genesis 15:16).
Circumstances, then, are settings that God owns and uses to engage us but they are not, in themselves, indicators of God’s affection or displeasure towards us. For that we can turn to another measure: our fascination with Jesus.
The Father loves the Son and loves all who love the Son with him. We find this in Psalm 2 where readers are told to “Kiss the Son, lest [God] be angry, and you perish in the way”. In the measure we love God’s Son, his love for us prospers because the Father’s love is expressed to and through the Son; even through the expense of the crucifixion as Jesus himself tells us in John 3:16.
Consider Sibbes again: “For what is faith, which is the work of the gospel and grace of the new covenant, but the apprehension of the love of God in Christ?” (Bish, 36). Such faith pleases God because it restores our trajectory in life to share in the aim God had in first creating and in now sustaining the universe: for us to enjoy and explore the realm of his triune communion of love.
As Christians, then, the way to view our circumstances is always to see them as the furnishings of our life in Christ. Some elements may be more comfortable than others but they all offer us a setting for growing and enjoying his care for us. So rather than trying to measure our standing with the Father by some mysterious formula we are invited instead to fix our eyes on the Son. In him we begin to see life as an adventure of trusting one who already loves us no matter what. It makes all the difference!