What does it mean to love God? The best way I can think to make the answer clear is to say three things that love for God is not. The essence of love for God is not these three things.
First, loving God is not meeting his needs. The way we love man is different from the way we love God. God is the source of all things and has no needs. He cannot be helped or improved. We cannot love him by supplying his needs. He has none. Loving God is not meeting his needs.
A second thing loving God is not. In its essence, you can’t love God for his gifts – gifts like forgiveness, justification, escape from hell, resurrection to a pain-free life, and so forth. If we love God, we will cherish these gifts and be thankful for them. However, loving God is treasuring the Giver of the gifts more than the gifts themselves. His gifts are precious to the degree that they bring us to God and show us more of God.
Third, the essence of loving God is not the things that love for God prompts you to do. Love for God may prompt you to leave mother and father and forsake everything so that you can declare His name among the nations. But leaving mother and father and forsaking everything are not the essence of love – they are the fruit of love. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” This does not mean keeping his commandments is equivalent to love. It can be, but it’s not always the case. It means love is the kind of heart that prompts you to keep his commandments.
In other words, what I am saying is that love for God is more like a reflex of the heart. If you equate the deeds of love with the essence of love, you will produce hypocrites – people who imitate the deeds and claim to love God when their hearts are far from him. If you equate love for God with love for his gifts, you produce hypocrites – people who are very glad to feel forgiven and declared righteous, but they find no pleasure in God himself. They don’t love God. They just don’t want to have guilty feelings or they don’t want to be eternally condemned.
Therefore I think it is absolutely critical that we clarify what the essence of love for God is. Loving God is desiring God himself beyond his gifts. It is a glad reflex of the heart to all that God is for us in Christ.
If that is your heart and you truly love God for who he is and not what he can do for you, then the promise applies. All things will work for your good. It is not all good things. It is all things – including bad things. This includes tragedies, difficulties, low points. Even in those things, God works for our good. In fact, the whole context before and after Romans 8:28 is painful.
Verse 17 says we will be glorified with Christ if we suffer with him. Verse 18 says that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us in the future. Verses 20 says that the creation – including us – is subjected to futility. Verse 21 says that creation is in bondage to decay. Verse 23 says that even Spirit-filled Christians groan with the fallen creation awaiting our adoption, the redemption of our weak and sick and dying bodies. Verse 24 says we have been saved “in hope.” You can’t see hope, otherwise it wouldn’t be hope – so most of our salvation is invisible and still in the future.
No wonder we groan. If you can remember a time when you were really sick and the only thing you could do was groan. Because your entire body aches and you can’t even pinpoint where the pain is coming from. This is the default state of a Christian according to Romans chapter 8.
And then verse 35 says we may be subjected to trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger or sword. And in the middle of all this, to give us strength and hope and courage, verse 28 says, Yes, all this is true AND we know that all things – all this suffering and futility and bondage to decay and groaning and tribulation and distress and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword – all these things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.
31 What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?
There will be many enemies. There will be many adversaries and obstacles and miseries and distresses and opposition and seemingly pointless delays and setbacks and breakdowns. But, in all these things we are more than conquerors because of the sovereign love of God in Christ. Nothing will finally succeed against us. If God is for us, who can be against us? Answer: no one.
From the sweetest to the most severe and bitter and painful, everything will work together for your good. God will be for you. And if God is for you, no one can successfully be against you.
You see this principle at work in the life of Joseph. His brothers hate him because he had a dream that someday he will reign over them. If you have younger siblings or you have young kids, you know that saying something like this to your older siblings was not the wisest thing to do. As you would expect, Joseph’s older brothers heard this and they were angered. They ended up throwing Joseph into a pit, and then they sold him into slavery in Egypt. But God is for Joseph. And Joseph loves God. And despite everything–being sold into slavery, being wrongly accused, being imprisoned–God’s favor never left Joseph.
And through a miraculous turn of events, Joseph is promoted by Pharaoh to one of the highest positions in Egypt where he was entrusted with food distribution, which in a time of imminent famine turns out to be an extremely powerful position.
The famine got so bad that it threatened Joseph’s family in Canaan and so the brothers who hated him and tried to get rid of him come to Egypt. And guess who is there to receive them? None other than Joseph. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph meets his brothers for the first time in many years. Let’s turn there.
20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
Instead of “you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good,” a better translation is “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
This is an Old Testament version of Romans 8:28. All things work together for good for God’s people. All things, including all the sins of others and the evil done to Joseph. These are things that God “meant” to work together for good. God did not just watch evil events unfold passively from the sidelines with no design and no purpose, and then suddenly spring into action to bring good out of a bad situation. No, just as Joseph’s brothers meant it for evil, so also God meant it, purposed it, designed it for good.
Isn’t this a picture of the cross? There was evil done unto Jesus. The sins of Herod and Pontius Pilate, the Roman soldiers, the Jewish religious leaders, the crowds, which was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, who shouted, Crucify him! The cross involved a tremendous amount of sin and evil. Nevertheless, while these various people meant it for evil, God meant it for good.
God didn’t just bring good out of the evil and pain of the cross and out of the slavery of Joseph; he planned it for our good. God plans and purposes and works all things together for our good.