The language we use in
modern Christianity to speak about God and his love for us often
fails to do justice to the special ways he relates to us as
individuals. I grew convinced of this after a woman once told me
she had long resisted giving her life to Christ because God’s
love seemed too universal to her.
“For a long time I had no
doubt that God loved me,” Nancy confessed, “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
talking about God can imply that there’s no distinctiveness in a
relationship with him. We speak of him loving everyone, and
loving them equally, impartially, the same way. While the
thought of God’s love being so inclusive is deeply comforting to
some, others fear their individuality will be lost if they allow
him to have much influence in their life.
We long for distinctiveness as human creatures--probably more
than anything. We each want to know that we’re originals among
the mass of humanity and not copies. We crave assurance that
we’re unmatched by anyone else who has walked this earth, that
we may know there is justification to our existence.
This urge for distinctiveness touches us on two levels. We
long, on the one hand, to know that our work and accomplishment
are unique--that we’re able to contribute something to human
life that no one else can. But we also yearn for distinctiveness
in 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 that you’re accepted for who you are,
and esteemed in a way that’s 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 of believers, responding to a vast cosmic
Nancy had put her finger on why it is that some people,
though convinced that a loving God exists--perhaps even that he
has revealed himself in Christ--still fail to give their life to
him. It would mean losing their individuality, and entering a
life of clonally conformity with others who have joined the
Nancy’s struggle also highlights why some believers actually
bail out of their Christian walk. The chaplain of a large
Christian university agreed with me, for instance, that the
major reason some students on Christian campuses abandon their
faith is that they see little distinctive about being Christian.
On the secular campus, one may enjoy a cherished sense of
rebellion by following Christ. At the Christian college, by
contrast, everyone around you is a believer. If a student
assumes that God loves him and his classmates all identically
and has similar intentions for their lives, he may reach the
fateful conclusion that individuality can only be found outside of a
relationship with Christ.
From Despair to Distinction
Nancy, however, was no longer inclined to think of God and
the Christian life this way. Her concept of God had grown and
changed substantially, and she now viewed him much more
personally than she first implied.
“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, but distinctively.
I’m convinced there is a portion of his love that is meant for
me and for me alone.” She went on to explain that this insight
had been the turning point for her, allowing her to enter 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). John clearly didn’t mean that Jesus loved
him more than anyone else. He notes that Jesus also 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 surely would have thought it appropriate for Peter or
any other disciple to make this claim. By the same token, it’s
one that each of us who follows Christ can make for ourselves.
The remarkable freedom John felt to refer to himself in this way
suggests that we should think of ourselves likewise. “I
am the disciple whom Jesus loves.” Such a conviction isn’t
egotistical, but central to our self-image as Christians.
I’ve been intrigued to find no less a
thinker than C. S. Lewis suggesting that God loves us in an
individual manner. In The Problem of Pain he declares,
“Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all
infinitely, should love each differently?”*
Many centuries before, St. Augustine
expressed a similar understanding of God’s love in a prayer of
his Confessions: “O Thou Good omnipotent, who so cares
for every one of us, as if Thou cared 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 guides 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 have a
theological basis for taking that responsibility seriously, and
for getting beyond any idea that the Christian life must be
For another thing, we have a basis for
seeking an intimate personal relationship with Christ, knowing
it will be different from any other Christian’s. 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.”*
God’s distinctive love is also shown in how he nurtures and
matures us, with a different pattern of growth for each of our
lives. It may seem you’re not moving at a snail’s pace in some
area where 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 come surprisingly quickly for you. You quickly overcome
an addictive habit; you find an ability to share your faith that
is 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 vulnerable points.
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 have to leave the Christian
environment 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 his plan for her life are unique, as is true for
each of her classmates. She can esteem her fellow students as
individuals, and feel great freedom to be herself--where she is.
You and I should reflect often on God’s distinctive for us,
and what it means for the life he has called us to live.
Appreciating this aspect of God’s love will enrich our
relationship with him in endless ways, and strengthen our
ability to love others with the affection of Christ.