Escape from Exceptionalism

Does God love me? Have you ever asked yourself that question? I have. Some will find that odd because I have been speaking and serving in churches since I was seventeen. You would think that someone who has spent so much time in ministry would not struggle with believing God loves Him. But I have.

When I was doubting His love, I would tell myself there was no reason for feeling unloved. I knew dozens of Bible texts that affirmed His love for every single person. I could recite John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world…”) but I rarely experienced it. In my heart I was the one guy on the planet who was the exception. He loved everyone — except me.

Over time, I did grow in my knowledge and experience of God. I submitted all major decisions to Him, acting only when I knew what He wanted. I saw Him do some remarkable things in the churches and ministries where I served. I knew that He was exercising sovereign control over the trajectory of my life. I became more attuned to His voice as I read His Word, sat with Him in prayer, and walked with His people. There were countless moments when I sensed His love in profound and powerful ways. Taking the form of answered prayers and providential circumstances, those moments often reduced me to tears of gratitude.

Yet the questions I had about His love for me continued to skulk quietly about in the back of my mind. Like the intermittent, annoying chirp of a smoke detector needing a new battery, doubt persisted in the shadows — and I knew it. When tired or discouraged, the feelings of alienation would resurface, and my emotional life as a Christian quickly devolved into a joy-less maintenance of personal morality. For long segments of my journey, my unacknowledged motivation was to be “good enough” to be loved by Him. And when I failed, I knew that He was deeply disappointed. I was never going to be “good enough.”

The sense of emotional “distance” never left me. God was everywhere, but He was rarely “near” to me. There was a gap between knowing His love in my head and resting in His love within my heart. Over the years I encountered this same problem in the lives of friends and fellow pastors. I was surprised to learn that there were well-known spiritual leaders who wrestled with the same kind of exceptionalism that plagued me. Reading a biography of David Wilkerson written by his son Gary, I thoroughly identified with his description of his dad’s struggle. He writes,

“Very simply, my father wondered his whole life whether God loved him. It was a question he kept mostly to himself. Growing up, he had absorbed some of the traumatizing aspects of a theology that leaned toward works and legalism and sometimes fear. Although doctrinally he knew he was free in Christ, something in him still made him feel he had to work hard —that nothing he did was enough, that more was required to fill what was missing in his righteousness in Christ… The revelation of my father’s lifelong struggle was stunning to many.”

David Wilkerson: The Cross, the Switchblade, and the Man Who Believed by Gary Wilkerson, Zondervan 2014, p.28

I tried to understand the factors that contributed to my struggle – those failures and experiences from my past. The scars were real. So, I consciously released those offenses through the giving — and seeking — of forgiveness. That was the right thing to do. But reopening ancient wounds and recapping painful incidents failed to resolve my problem.

The “breakthrough” came late one evening several years ago. I had gotten out of bed and retreated to my study, sensing the Lord was drawing me to be alone with Him. During the weeks leading up to that night, I had been praying and thinking much about my struggle with exceptionalism. I had concluded that the key to overcoming this stronghold – and that is indeed what it is, a structure of lies residing in my mind – rests in knowing who He is and how He loves. I had begun to understand that I would never “escape” by focusing on me and my relative worth (or unworthiness) to be loved by Him (“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us…” 1 John 4:10).

Let me restate this: the solution to my problem did not lie in understanding who I am as the object of His love (“how could He love me?“), but by exploring the nature of His love (“how does He love?”).

In the mornings leading up to that “breakthrough” evening I had been listening to an old sermon series by A. W. Tozer on the attributes of God. Tozer argued that God is a unitary being… a spirit. While I exist in parts, God has no parts. He is one. So, when I speak of His love, it is not part of Him, it is all of Him, infinite and perfect in expression, not balanced or in harmony with His other attributes, but simply Him… as are all His attributes. Tozer would later explain…

“The doctrine of the divine unity means not only that there is but one God; it means also that God is simple, uncomplex, one with Himself. The harmony of His being is the result not of a perfect balance of parts but of the absence of parts.”

The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer, Harper Collins 1961, p. 15

When the Bible reveals His love for me, I need to pay more attention to what it is saying about Him. He. Is. Love. (1 John 4:8) I was beginning to see with my heart what my head had known for years. My worth, my value… my very existence… is conditioned on His pre-emptive and eternal love for me.

So back to that special night when everything changed… I was in my study at His bidding. In my heart, what I wanted to do was to go to sleep with thoughts of the Lord filling my mind. I read scriptures about the attributes of God. They were good reminders. My heart was enjoying Him, so I headed back to the bedroom.

Then as I began to go to sleep, He spoke to me – the words came to my mind clearly and forcefully. A simple declaration. It was not something I had recently read, or even knew where it came from (although it was familiar, and I knew it was scripture) …

“I have loved you with an everlasting love.”

I got up and headed back to my study. I knew it was Him. I did not know where the statement came from in the Bible, so I looked it up, finding it in Jeremiah 31:3. Without knowing the full context or doing any exegesis, I was struck by the word everlasting as a key descriptor of His love – something I needed to hear about the way my Father loves. 

My next thought was this: my Father has never stopped loving me because He has never started loving me… there never has been a time when He has not loved me, then had a first thought about me, and then began to love me… HE HAS ALWAYS KNOWN ME AND LOVED ME. That is simply the way that He loves!

This is true because He is unchanging, and what He is today He has always been and will always be. There has never been a time when He did not know me, and then started to know me, or else He would have had an incomplete knowledge of all things (e.g., Psalm 139). In essence, He would have learned something… but He does not learn! His knowledge is complete, perfect, and eternal. 

His love for me is just like His knowledge of me. His love has never “grown,” nor has it been “improved.” He has always loved what He loves… if there was a time when He did not love me, and then later He began to love me, then His love would have changed… but that is not the truth: His love is unchanging. 

I sat there and wept. I am still overwhelmed by His love… and the way that He loves. 

Hallelujah!

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