Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. This line from a classic children’s hymn is familiar to many of us, especially if you grew up going to Sunday school. You likely know the rest of the words by heart.
My sense is that as adult believers we think the hymn is memorable but rather simplistic; helpful to children but too elementary for the mature.
But is it? Do you really know that Jesus loves you? Are you confident in his love, or do you struggle to believe that he could love someone like you? Sinful, dirty, foolish you. Doubting you. Weak you. Angry, bitter, impatient you.
Truth be told, we know the words from the song, but we often find them difficult to believe.
Part of the reason for this is we tend to think that Jesus’s love is contingent on our performance. On our “good” days, “he loves me.” And the “bad” days? Well, “he loves me not. But, if I can get my act together, if I have enough good days in a row, maybe he’ll like me.”
Jerry Bridges called this
the performance treadmill. We know that our sins are forgiven freely by grace through faith in Christ. But we think and live as if we now need to merit God’s love and acceptance by our ongoing obedience. We spend our days working up a sweat on the treadmill. Eventually, though, you grow tired and collapse in spiritual despair.
Many Christians, myself included, have an impoverished understanding of the love of God in Christ. We think he’s miserly with his love. We suspect his love is limited. We fear that our sin causes his love for us to wane.
We’re like the prodigal son in the parable in Luke 15:11–32. As he prepares to return home, he comes up with a speech to make to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants” (Luke 15:19). He doesn’t expect the father to welcome him back with open arms. Instead he prepares for a public shaming ceremony. And afterwards? The father won’t love him as a son. How could he? The son’s behavior earlier was inexcusable. Perhaps, though, his father will treat him like a slave. That’s better than nothing, right? Such was the son’s failure to truly understand his father’s love.1
John Owen observed that many believers are afflicted with a debilitating soul sickness. They see God as one who is only, or mostly, angry, wrathful, and easily provoked, rather than how he reveals himself in the gospel: a God of overflowing love toward undeserving sinners.
What’s the result of our defective view of God’s love? We don’t enjoy the rich, soul-nourishing communion with God that is our privilege as those upon whom he has set his love.
God wants you, Christian, to know his love. He wants you to bask in it, to delight in it, to be assured of it. He wants you to “eye him,” to use Owen’s expression, as a fountain of inexhaustible love for you.
“Really?” you might wonder. “Isn’t that presumptuous?” No, it’s not. God delights to pour out his love on us: “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” (Zeph 3:17). And he wants us to delight in receiving his love. Scripture invites us to marvel at the love God has shown to us: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
How can you learn to delight in God’s love for you? Let me suggest two ways.
1. Pray for God to plant the knowledge of his love deep in the core of your heart. That’s what Paul prayed for the church in Ephesus.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph 3:14–19).
It’s one thing to know the words to Jesus Loves Me, This I Know; it’s another for God’s love in Christ to be a soul-shaping reality in your everyday life. His love is a love to be known and experienced, and such experience of his love is only possible by the work of the Holy Spirit within us. That’s why Paul prays the way he does — for God to strengthen believers by the power of the Spirit so they would “comprehend” and “know” his love.
2. Spend time meditating on God’s love. I want to point you specifically to the Gentle and Lowly podcast by Dane Ortlund. It’s a 14-day devotional podcast based on his book Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers. Each episode is a three to four minute meditation on one aspect of Christ’s heart of love for people like you and me — people who are sinful, flawed, and weak.
I have to say, the podcast has confronted me with how deficient my knowledge of Christ’s love is. I simply haven’t appreciated enough what it means to be loved by Christ. Dane Ortlund is helping me. I think you’ll find the same to be true for you.
Maybe Jesus Loves Me, This I Know isn’t simply a children’s song after all. Maybe it’s something all of us, no matter our age, need to learn to sing with more assurance.
Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Trinitarian Devotion of John Owen (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2014), 54. ↩