It is not enemies who taunt me—I could bear that; it is not adversaries who deal insolently with me—I could hide from them. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend, with whom I kept pleasant company; we walked in the house of God with the throng. (Psalm 55:12-14)
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . . (Hebrews 5:7-9)
We’ve all been let down by a friend, cast away by a lover, or mocked by former friends. It’s always painful and usually a profound shock to our inner life. We don’t usually see these things coming, except maybe in retrospect. We are often deeply invested in these relationships, and we expect them to endure and to meet certain needs in our lives. Even in the healthiest of relationships, disappointment and betrayal remain possibilities.
There is always something missing in human relationships. Those relationships are incomplete and imperfect in some way. In the best of friendships, someone is bound to move away or eventually die, leaving a state of loss and grief behind. Yet, we continue to be shocked when pain comes to us through the people we have loved.
Sometimes we speak of our love for others as “unconditional.” This is mostly wrong. Human love always has some sort of condition attached to it. It is never given in a truly free way. Unconditionalality is the character of God’s love. Henri Nouwen describes it this way:
This unconditional and unlimited love is what the evangelist John calls God’s first love. ‘Let us love,’ he says, ‘because God loved us first’ (I John 4:19). The love that often leaves us doubtful, frustrated, angry, and resentful is the second love, that is to say, the affirmation, affection, sympathy, encouragement, and support that we receive from our parents, teachers, spouses, and friends. We all know how limited, broken, and very fragile that love is. Behind the many expressions of this second love there is always the chance of rejection, withdrawal, punishment, blackmail, violence, and even hatred. (In the Name of Jesus, 25-6)
God’s full, complete love is shown most clearly to us in Jesus. The writer of the book of Hebrews describes Jesus as “having been made perfect.” There is an important point to be made here: It isn’t that Jesus was run through an earthly boot camp in order to qualify as God’s source of salvation; it is that God, in the person of Jesus, experienced all of human life, which included suffering and death. In suffering and death Jesus became “perfect” (the Greek word in the New Testament for “perfect” can also mean “complete”). If Jesus would have dodged the dual bullets of suffering and death, then he would never have fully identified with human beings, because suffering and death are included in the drama of human life.
This is how God’s first, complete, and perfect love is portrayed to us. God comes among us in the person of Jesus and lives the fullness of human existence in his conception, birth, life, suffering, and death. In his resurrection, the limits of that experience are exploded. God does not let us down by saying, “There you go. Through Jesus, I’ve experienced it all, including death. Now quit whining and take your medicine!” Instead, there is hope and promise on the other side. There is no possibility of betrayal with God like there is with us. Unlike the second loves of human relationships, God’s first love is complete, full, and unconditional.
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