A couple at the crescendo of their wedding ceremony solemnly utter:
“I love you, and before God and those gathered here today, I take you to be my . . .”
A parent tucks their child into bed at night and gently whispers:
“I love you, time to go to sleep . . .”
A friend wraps up their speech for someone’s milestone birthday celebration:
“All in all, I just want to say I love you and value our friendship so much . . .”
Perhaps you can resonate with one or more of these encounters. You might have been on the receiving end of words like these. Maybe you were the one articulating those potent and evocative “I love yous”.How we perceive and receive such professions of love goes well beyond those moments, and depends on a few key factors—experience, understanding, and trust.
For the couple sharing their vows, their commitment is not just anchored to how they hope love will look in their future, but also on what love has looked like in their past—memories of selfless care in the interest of the other, thoughtful gestures of affection and encouragement, and recurring reminders of integrity.
When a child hears “I love you” from their parent, the weight of these words draws from their experience of when they’ve been loved—like when their parent comforts them after they’ve fallen over or have been emotionally hurt by a friend.
And the power and poignancy of a friend’s heartfelt expression of love is confirmed by their thoughtful words, generous gifts, and caring presence in our lives.
How we perceive love does not just apply to our relationships with other people, it also affects our relationship with God. One of the profound tenets of faith is that God is a God of love. He describes Himself as “abounding in love” (Exodus 34:6b), and this characteristic is referred to again and again by the biblical authors (e.g. Psalm 86:15).
We are assured of this truth not just because God says so, but because of how this love is embodied and expressed, time and time again.
So, how do we know God loves us?
1. We reflect on how He came through for us in the past (experience)
I have a vivid memory of when I first heard and truly understood the Gospel. As a 14-year-old, I was confused, angry, and very much aware of the brokenness and dysfunction in my life, which were clearly the consequences of sin. Yet, when I heard the good news of God’s love for me, demonstrated ultimately through the death of Jesus in place for my sins, it changed the trajectory of my life.
That’s the big way, but there have also been countless, ordinary experiences with extraordinary outcomes. Like the time I was feeling discouraged about my work situation, and a mate sent a text, saying, “I don’t know why, but I’ve got a sense God wants me to pray for you right now. Is there anything I can pray for you about?” My mate’s simple, courageous message reminded me of how God knows what I need and cares for me.
2. We receive and live by His Word (understanding and trust)
When we read and immerse ourselves in the Bible, we don’t just hear the profound experiences of others whose lives have been transformed by the love of God; we are also reminded of the truth of this love. It’s a love to which we can anchor our understanding and trust, because in the Bible, God’s love is revealed as something that is unchanging and ongoing.
Throughout the Old Testament, God consistently showed love to His people, even though they were wayward and disobedient. He rescued them from slavery and assured them through the words of prophets like Hosea (Hosea 3:1) and Joel (Joel 2:12-14). Even His judgement is brought about in love, like a parent who disciplines a child out of love (Proverbs 3:11-12).
Shifting into the New Testament, 1 John encapsulates the truth and ultimate example of God’s love, captured, and expressed with these words:
This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:9-10).
Jesus’s sacrifice is the highest display of God’s love. It’s a love that made the first move—God loved us before we loved God. It’s a love that acknowledges the worst of us (sin) and provides us what we need most (forgiveness of sin).
Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s love and provision for us is revealed in a tangible way. Because of Jesus, we can know that God loves us, because He humbled Himself to become one of us, and took our place to spare us from the worst fate.
3. We learn by doing—loving others, through which we learn more of His love (experience, understanding, trust)
This is a love that not only transforms our relationship with God, but it also informs our relationship with others. 1 John 4 continues with this encouragement and implication:
Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is made complete in us (1 John 4:11-12).
The other week, I found myself in a conversation with a friend who was feeling like some of their life’s choices had made them a failure, unworthy of love by anyone. I have a deep love for this mate, so in response, I just sat with them for a while as they continued to share their despair.
After some time, I felt prompted to remind them that they are still loved—by me, by others, and more importantly, by God. And as I was reminding this person of God’s continuing, redeeming, transformative love, I was deeply moved in my own mind as I realised that the conviction in my words was stirred by the way in which I’ve experienced God’s love myself.
See, showing God’s love to others doesn’t have to be big or extravagant. It starts with us being present with others, and can be as simple as warmly welcoming someone, or including them in our social circle, or anticipating and meeting a need, or comforting and supporting a friend who is going through a hard time—these small acts of love point them to a bigger picture of a God who is love.
Two final thoughts for your continued reflection:
How do I know God loves me?
Why not start with considering Jesus and what His life, death, and resurrection proclaims about God’s love for you?
How is God’s love made complete?
Through the ways you love others, which not only points them towards Jesus, but also reveals Jesus in their lives and yours.
May we know and be known by God’s love made complete in our lives.