I’ve mentioned before that the theme for our church this year is Prayer. I’ve led several studies and will lead more on prayer throughout the rest of the year (You can find the notes for those studies at Faith The Evidence - Bible Studies Blog). In our studies we've talked about prayer being a conversation between two friends, God and you. We’ve talked about not being afraid to tell God how we really feel. We’ve talked about praying even when it seemed pointless. We’ve talked about being specific and persistent in prayer. We’re currently in a study on being a prayer warrior. My pastor just finished two sermons on remembering when we pray. But I read something today that “knocked my socks off”, and "hit me like a ton of bricks”. Please forgive me for the metaphors but once you read what I read you’ll see what I mean.
Here’s what I read from Judah Smith's book Jesus Is: Find A New Way To Be Human; “John figured something out by watching Jesus. It’s not about how much we love God. It’s about how much He loves us.” He then wrote, "this will change the way you think, the way you talk, and the way you pray". I agree.
This is what I read.
The One You Love
In John 11, we find a moving story about three siblings: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Most scholars believe Martha was the oldest sibling, Mary was the middle, and Lazarus was the little brother. Interestingly, Lazarus was never recorded as saying one word in Scripture. Apparently his big sisters said it all. Poor guy.
In this passage, Mary and Martha are in the heat of the moment. Their little brother’s life is on the line. The Bible puts it this way:
Now, a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. Therefore, the sisters sent to Him saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” When Jesus heard that, He said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now, Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. — John 11:1-5
Besides His disciples, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were perhaps Jesus’s best friends. Jesus loved them deeply.
The fact that Jesus had friends at all might surprise a few people who think He floated around two feet off the ground and only had time for healing people and preaching. He was a normal-looking and normal-acting guy. Except He healed the sick, raised the dead, and never sinned. And He was God. Minor details.
In this story, Lazarus is hours from death. He is on the doorstep of death. And Mary and Martha, true to form, are speaking on Lazarus’s behalf. They need to get God’s attention. They have one shot at convincing Jesus to come. They need to come up with their best argument, their most airtight appeal. So they write Jesus a note. It has to be a good one — their brother’s life depends on it.
It’s the heat of the moment, and they aren’t thinking about being polite and courteous and wordy. What they really believe is about to be revealed. How are they going to appeal to Jesus? What will their plea be?
Now, if we were Lazarus’s siblings, a lot of us would have started out by listing all the good things Lazarus had done. We would have talked about how much he loved and admired Jesus and how he was a model citizen who didn’t deserve to die.
Not Mary and Martha. They knew what moved Jesus.
Lord, the one that You love is sick.
That was the realization that welled up from deep within their hearts. Jesus loved Lazarus. It wasn’t their love for Jesus, or Lazarus’s love, or his good deeds that moved Jesus. It was pointless to recite a laundry list of their brother’s achievements. That wasn’t what moved the heart of Jesus. It was His own love that motivated Him. It was His own desire to bless and heal and restore.
The story goes on to say that Jesus responded to Mary and Martha’s request and went to their home. But by the time He arrived, Lazarus had died. That didn’t bother Jesus — He knew it was going to happen. He simply raised Lazarus from the dead. It pays to have friends like that.
John, one of Jesus’s disciples, recorded this story. John understood the importance of Jesus’s love. Five times in his book, John calls himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He doesn’t even use his own name. He just flaunts that he was Jesus’s favorite.
Was he Jesus’s favorite? We don’t know. It doesn’t really matter, because he believed he was. And there is something strangely healthy about that perspective.
We are all God’s favorites.
Some might call John’s statements arrogant, but John didn’t care. Neither did God, apparently - it’s in His Book. John defined his identity through Jesus’s love. I find that fascinating. A few decades later, John wrote several letters that are also part of the Bible. The letters are manifestos of God’s love toward us. Here’s one example from 1 John 4:9-10:
God showed how much He loved us by sending His one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through Him. This is real love — not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.
John figured something out by watching Jesus. It’s not about how much we love God. It’s about how much He loves us.
That little truth will change the way you think, the way you talk, and the way you pray. For too many of us, life is all about how much we can accomplish. It’s about our plans, our work, our merit, our achievements. That’s gratifying to the ego, but ultimately it’s a dead end. We find ourselves in situations we can’t get out of, in need of favors we don’t deserve. We lose our perspective very quickly when we make life all about us.
Mary and Martha were some of Jesus’s closest friends. John, according to scholars, was probably Jesus’s closest disciple. It seems the people nearest Jesus had an overwhelming awareness of His love for them. Maybe we should take a hint.
Let Me Count the Ways
The message Mary and Martha sent was a plea, a prayer. And notice the basis of their prayer: “the one You love.”
You can find out a lot about what you really believe when you listen to yourself pray, when you listen to what you say in the heat of the moment. How many times have I prayed prayers like this:
Oh, God, I need help. I’m faithful. I help people. I’m generous. I’m holy. I read my Bible. And I’m praying really, really loudly, with big words and Bible verses and lots of praise. So come, Lord, and help me with my need.
In other words, “Lord, based on what I’ve done, now please do...” We think that moves God. No, what moves God is His Son. What moves God is His love.
One of the most famous love poems of all time, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43, starts out: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Don’t count the ways you love God; count the ways He loves you. Your love pales in comparison to His. So when you pray, pray like Mary and Martha: “Jesus, the one You love needs You.”
I was tired the other afternoon, for instance. Maybe not a big deal, but I had some things I had to accomplish that evening, and I really needed strength. So, I got alone for a few minutes, and I said, “Lord, the one You love is tired. Give me energy.”
It was such a refreshing, healthy way to pray. It was incredible. I started thinking, Whoa. That was crazy. That felt good.
He’s moved by His love. Remind Him of His love for you.
“Lord, the one You love is out $250 this month. I can’t pay the bills. But I’m Your favorite. I’m the one You love, so help me with my bills, Lord.”
That’s far better than trying to talk God into something based on our own works or our own merit.
Maybe you are thinking, I don’t really know Jesus. I’m a poor excuse for a follower of Jesus.
Nobody’s an outsider when we pray this way. It’s on the basis of His love, not ours. We have no idea how profound His love for us really is. No matter who you are, no matter what you need, try praying that prayer. And I pray that your heart erupts with an understanding and revelation of His amazing love for you.
“God, because I am the object of your obsession, because I’m the one You love, come now and take care of my needs.”
What is the focus of the Bible? Man loving God, or God loving man?
Many of us would answer automatically, “It’s about man loving God. It’s about humans leaving a sinful lifestyle and turning to God.” And even if we didn’t say it, we believe it - just look at how we pray and how we act.
We would be wrong.
All sixty-six books of the Bible, all forty-plus authors writing over the course of sixteen hundred years, point to the same thing: God’s love for humanity.
If you’re like me, you find yourself time and time again obsessing over your own inconsistencies and inadequacies, over your own love or lack of love for God. But if we spent more time in the Bible, we would discover that it is overwhelmingly about God’s love for us. In fact, God’s love created our love.
Here’s a crazy thought: God’s love is so extravagant and so inexplicable that He loved us before we were us. He loved us before we existed. He knew many of us would reject Him, hate Him, curse Him, rebel against Him. Yet He chose to love us. God loves us because He is love.
The message is clear in Scripture. The gospel is about God loving man, whether we reciprocate it or not. John, the “one Jesus loved,” spelled it out:
We love Him because He first loved us. - 1 John 4:19
The reason that we are even interested in God is that He is hot on our trails. We are His favorites, and He is passionately pursuing us. He doesn’t just love us like a friend, like an aunt or uncle, or even like a dad. His love is far more perfect than any earthly love.
Really, we won’t fully comprehend His love until we enter eternity with Him. And when we get to eternity, we will be undone. We will be overwhelmed and overcome and consumed with the enormity of His love.
Picture that the next time you pray, the next time you fail at something, the next time you are facing a tough situation — it will revolutionize everything.
Go ahead and try to describe the height of His love, the length of His love, the width of His love, the depth of His love. Our metaphors pale in comparison. We have marriages, we have children, we have adoptions, we have friends, but nothing compares to God’s love for us.
I’ve never met a person who exaggerated God’s love. Never. It’s impossible. He loved us first, He loves us best, and He will love us forever.
How does He love me?
I’ll spend the rest of my life counting the ways.
Excerpted with permission fromJesus Is: Find A New Way To Be Human by Judah Smith, copyright Thomas Nelson.
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Donald Jacobs is an ordained minister with the spiritual gift of teaching. He is the Associate Pastor of a non-denominational church in Los Angeles, CA.