December 8, 2022
There's a lot of talk about the love of God, but little experience. Why settle for an intellectual understanding of God's love when you were designed to experience it?
I hiked through the snow to the cabin after dark. I used my phone as a flashlight, looking for a lightswitch as I set my stuff down. The cabin was cold, just a few degrees higher than the air outside. I turned up the heat and made some tea. These occasional retreats were an opportunity to take a breath, a brief escape from the chaos of life. I would take a hike through the woods that surrounded me, I’d worship and pray, and I’d study. But first, I wanted a hot drink on a comfy chair in front of the fireplace.
I had noticed the fireplace the moment I stepped in. I wasn’t excited to find that it was electric, but still, it could have nearly the same effect. I set my tea down on the table next to the chair and sat down. I dragged the chair as close to the fireplace as I could. The switch had three settings: Heat, No Heat, and Off. Why would anyone turn it on to No Heat? Who wants to look at fake flames when they’re too warm for a fire? When I selected the Heat setting, it was no different than the No Heat setting. I was stuck staring at a cold, fake fire.
For many, this is the experience of the love of God. There’s a lot of talk about it, but little experience. If you’re going to tell me that you love me, you better be able to back it up. You can smother me with kisses, put your arm around me, bring me a gift or share a meal with me. Where there is love, there is meant to be an experience of that love: affection. Affection is most often thought of as loving touch, but more generally it's the act of affecting or being affected. It’s the felt expression of love.
When we don’t have an experience of something, it’s hard to trust the reality of it. If I’m constantly telling my kids I love them, but I’m not expressing that in any way, they’re going to become skeptical of that love. However, if affection is felt, with it comes a certainty that remains even in the moments that might feel contradictory. Affection is the experience of receiving a tangible expression of love. This experience is more essential than our intellectual assent, because an experience of truth is more formative than a distant concept.
When I look at Jesus, I see a lifestyle of affection. He is literally the expressed Love of God. To me, one of the clearest examples of this is the Leper in Mark 2. As a leper, the man has been required to keep his distance from everyone in his community. Lepers are seen not only as threats, but as an embarrassment to their community. He has had such a deficit of affection, that while he doesn’t question Jesus’ ability to heal him, he’s not so sure Jesus would want to.
Look at the affection in Jesus’ response. First, his heart is moved. Jesus sees the depth of this man’s pain, and it stirs his heart. Second, Jesus touches the man. He certainly didn’t have to touch him in order to heal him. How long has it been since this man has felt a touch from anyone?
Have you ever been surprised by how good a simple hand on the shoulder felt? Did you know that there is a hormone that is released in our body when we experience physical affection? It’s called oxytocin. Some call it the “cuddle hormone,” I prefer to call it “hugsytocin.” God wired us to need affection, because He intended to give it.
Jesus comes filled to the brim with the expressed love of God, giving everyone the opportunity to find the fulfillment of deep longing. How? Not because he’s God, but because he’s a son; a beloved son. There is only one thing that enables Jesus to be such a display of God’s affection for humanity. He is bursting with hugsytocin. The Gospel of John gives the most poetic and mysterious introduction to Jesus, and he ends the introduction with the most fascinating statement.
No one has ever seen God; the only God (some manuscripts say, “the only Son”), who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. -John 1:18
If you look at the footnotes in your Bible here, you might find that in the Greek, the meaning of “at the Father’s side” is “in the bosom of the Father.” John is secretly giving us the answer to the question Jesus is asked just a few verses later, “Where do you live?” (John 1:38). Ultimately, Jesus’ answer is, “I live in the embrace of my Father.” Jesus’ superpower is his intimate connection to the Father. He credits the Father for everything he says and does. Jesus’ love and affection for others is an overflow of the love and affection of the Father.
If this is really true, then the highest aim of our lives is to experience the affection of God. Jude, a man of few words, tells us to “keep yourselves in the love of God” (v. 21). In John 13, he gives a new command, Love one another as I have loved you (v. 34). The greatest commandment of the old covenant is self powered. “Love with all your heart, mind, strength.” But the new command is empowered by something beyond ourselves. Our love is empowered by the love we receive.
How do we do that? Well there’s no simple formula, but in my next story, I’ll share some strategy I’ve found to be immensely helpful.