language we use in modern Christianity to speak
about God and his love for us often fails to do
justice to the special ways in which he relates
to us as individuals. I first became convinced of
this when a woman spoke with me following a
seminar. For much of her life, Nancy had been
reluctant to commit herself to Christ, even
though she believed some of the tenets of
She summed up her misgivings in
an unforgettable statement: "For a long time
I had no doubt that God loved me, but it made no
difference to me--for the fact is that God loves everyone.
And if God loves everybody, what's so special
about the fact that he loves me?"
Although I had never heard it
expressed this way before, I realized immediately
that Nancy had her point. Our manner of speaking
about God can imply that there is no
individuality in a relationship with him. We talk
of him loving everyone, and loving them equally,
impartially, the same way. While to one person
this speaks of great security in a relationship
with Christ, to another it speaks of a loss of
We long for distinctiveness as
human creatures, probably more than anything. We
each want to know that we are originals and not
copies. We crave assurance that we are somehow
unique among the mass of humanity, that there is
justification to our existence.
The desire for distinctiveness
touches us on two levels. We want to know that
our work and accomplishment are unique, that we
can contribute something to human life which no
one else can. But we also long for
distinctiveness within relationships. Much of the
thrill of being loved and cherished by someone is
the sense of being special that goes along with
it. You know you're accepted for whom you are and
esteemed in a way that is different from that
person's affection for anyone else.
Yet if God loves everyone in an
equal, unbiased fashion, how can there be
anything distinctive about a relationship with
him? What's so novel about receiving his love?
What possibility for creative accomplishment is
there in living for him? You're simply one of the
mass, responding to a vast cosmic love force.
Nancy had put her finger on why
it is that some people, though convinced that a
exists--perhaps even persuaded he
has revealed himself in Christ--still fail to
take the step of giving their life to him. It
would mean losing their individuality--entering a
life of clonely conformity with others who have
joined the Christian club.
She had also singled out why some
believers actually bail out of their Christian
walk. The chaplain of a large Christian
university agreed with me that the major reason
some students on Christian campuses abandon their
faith is that they see nothing distinctive about
being a Christian. Unlike the secular
campus--where one may enjoy a cherished sense of
rebellion by being a Christian--everyone around
them is a Christian, responding to a God who
loves them identically and has similar intentions
for their lives. Individuality, they conclude,
can only be found outside of a relationship with
From Despair to Distinction
But Nancy, fortunately, had come
to see God in a more creative fashion than this.
"I've finally come to realize that God does
love me differently from any other person,"
she continued. "I don't mean that he loves
me any more than anyone else, only distinctively.
There is a portion of his love that is meant for
me and for me alone." She went on to explain
that this discovery had been the turning point,
allowing her to come into a meaningful
relationship with Christ.
The thought of God's love being
distinctive was revolutionary to me. But the more
I've reflected on it, the more I've become
convinced that this is exactly the outlook
Scripture presents. God is pictured as one who
loves each person equally, perfectly,
completely--yet still in a fashion unique to that
individual. There is a measure of his love meant
for each of us alone.
On five occasions in his gospel,
for instance, John refers to himself as the
disciple whom Jesus loved (Jn 13:23, 19:26, 20:2,
21:7, 21:20). He clearly didn't mean that Jesus
loved him more than anyone else. He notes
that Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Jn
11:5, 36), and all of his disciples (Jn 13:1). In
his most far-reaching statements John quotes
Jesus as saying that anyone who follows
him will be loved by God (Jn 14:21), and that God
through Christ loves the world (Jn 3:16).
Why, then, did John call himself
the disciple whom Jesus loved? I believe he meant
that Jesus' love for him, while not exclusive,
nor greater than his love for anyone else, was distinctive.
Christ loved him in a way unique from his
affection for any other person!
John would surely have thought it
appropriate for Peter or any other disciple to
make this same claim. By the same token, it's one
that each of us who follows Christ can make for
ourselves. The remarkable freedom John felt, in
referring to himself in this fashion, suggests
that we should think of ourselves in this
way. It is not egotistical to do so, but vital to
our self-image as Christians.
intrigued to find no less a thinker than C. S.
Lewis making a similar point. In The Problem
of Pain he declares, "Why else were
individuals created, but that God, loving all
infinitely, should love each differently?"*
before, St. Augustine reflected on the
distinctive nature of God's love in a prayer of
his Confessions: "O Thou Good
omnipotent, who so carest for every one of us, as
if Thou caredst for him only; and so for all, as
if they were but one!"*
Equal but not Identical
We can barely begin to fathom
this dimension of God's love. It is a deep
mystery. But we can realize some of its
For one thing, it gives us a
basis for accepting our own distinctiveness. An
important way that God shows his love for us is
through the unique manner in which he creates and
sustains our lives (Ps 139, 1 Cor 12). While it
is a lifetime task to fully understand the gifts
and plans God has for each of us, we do have a
theological basis for taking that task seriously,
and for getting beyond the idea that the
Christian life must be a conforming one.
thing, we have a basis for seeking an intimate
personal relationship with Christ, knowing that
it will be different in important respects from
that experienced by any other Christian. C. S.
Lewis suggests that we will enjoy a distinctive
relationship with Christ even in eternity.
Reflecting on Scripture's promise that we will
receive a new name in heaven (Rev. 2:17), he
predicts that there we each "shall forever
know and praise some one aspect of the divine
beauty better than any other creature can."*
Christ will also have a
distinctive pattern of growth for each of our
lives. There may be areas of spiritual
development where it seems you're not even moving
at a snail's pace, while others are growing by
leaps and bounds. Your friend has a devotional
time for an hour every morning, while you
struggle to concentrate for fifteen minutes. But
other areas of growth may come unusually quickly
for you. You quickly overcome an addictive habit;
you find an ability to share your faith which
seems out of all proportion with your shyness.
It can be so tempting to compare
yourself with others at points of strength and
weakness. Yet such comparisons are always
meaningless. Even the person whom you most admire
as a pinnacle of spiritual strength has plenty of
The fact that God loves us
distinctively inspires us also to accept the
uniqueness he has given to other believers. And
it saves us from thinking that we need to leave a
Christian setting in order to salvage our
individuality. The student on a Christian campus
can know that while she shares something similar
and vital with those around her, Christ's
relationship with her and plan for her life are
unique--as is true for each of her classmates.
She can esteem them as individuals, and feel
great freedom to be herself, where she is.
You and I should reflect often on
the distinctive love God has for us, and what
this means for the life he has called us to live.
Appreciating it will enrich our own relationship
with him in endless ways, and strengthen our
ability to love others with the affection of