One of the reasons why many do not believe in the existence of God is because God is perceived or experienced as anything except love. Many feel that God is far from our lives. He does not care for our happiness. He did not come to our help when we needed Him in our studies, in our relationships, in our financial difficulties, and in our family woes. We feel that this God has betrayed us in love. Yet, we are expected to love Him and serve Him. Most of all, this God seems to expect too much from us. He is an exacting God and does not tolerate mistakes and human weaknesses. We live under the threat of punishment and eternal hell when we fall into sin. So much so we feel that religion is the main obstacle to our freedom because they condition us into fear and guilt. But such perception of God is entirely in discord with the Bible.
Firstly, in the gospel, Jesus states in very succinct terms who God is. In one sentence, He summarized the heart of God. He said, “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” This is perhaps the most beautiful verse in the whole bible that captures the heart of the Christian message that God is love. Far from thinking that God is waiting to destroy and punish us, we read that the essence of God is love. He is not a capricious God who demands our attention and worship. He is not a tyrannical God who treats us like a pawn where we are manipulated. Nay, He is our loving God.
Secondly, this God loves the world. Everyone is loved by God. No one is outside the ambit of His love, including non-Christians. The world is created by God. All are His creatures and all are loved by Him. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Mt 5:45) Whether saints or sinners, good or bad, regardless of race, language and religion, all are loved by God. He cares for each one of us. He came for us all. His love for us is not an abstract love. He loves each one of us just as He attended to the lost sheep. He does not just love humanity but He loves each and every single individual person. We do not have to be good to earn His love because He loves us all.
Thirdly, God is our heavenly Father who sent us His Only Begotten Son to lead us to fullness of life. “For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.” God truly loves us so much that He gave His Only Son for our salvation. In Christ, we are saved. It is not God’s wish to see us condemned but redeemed. St Paul wrote, “What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” (Rom 8:32-34) What proves that He loves us is that He held nothing back from us.
Fourthly, salvation is not the work of man but of God. It is God who takes the initiative to save us. We cannot earn our salvation. It would be totally wrong to think that God forgives us only because Jesus died for us, otherwise, He would not. Such a picture of God would not fit into the image portrayed by Christ. Rather, it is because God has already forgiven us that He sent us His Son to manifest that prior love and mercy for us all. The Son’s coming is to demonstrate the heart of His love and to lead us all into salvation by following Him in life and in death. St Paul wrote, “We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7)
Indeed, the love of God is not abstract but concrete and real. The love of God is not mere words but action. He does not simply help us from afar and rescues us from our suffering. His love is beyond our imagination. “While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Rom 5:6-10) Today, He continues to deliver us from our sins and bondages just as He delivered St Peter from prison. The psalmist echoes this experience when he prayed, “Glorify the Lord with me. Together let us praise his name. I sought the Lord and he answered me from all my terrors he set me free. Look towards him and be radiant; let your faces not be abashed. This poor man called, the Lord heard him and rescued him from all his distress.”
But with Christ’s coming, there is also judgement, which is inevitable. But how does this square in with the gospel text when He said, “God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world.” The condemnation is not on God’s side but man’s. Christ has come to reveal to us His truth and love. He has come to reveal to us His Father’s love and plan for us. He has come to show us how to live the truth, a life of justice and in the light. He has come to teach us how to love unconditionally, and to give our lives for others. So we are to live for God, for love and for others. In rejecting the light, we condemn ourselves, we live in darkness. This is what the evangelist wrote,“No one who believes in him will be condemned; but whoever refuses to believe is condemned already, because he has refused to believe in the name of God’s only Son. On these grounds is sentence pronounced: that though the light has come into the world men have shown they prefer darkness to the light because their deeds were evil.” In other words, we judge ourselves when we miss out the life and love that Jesus has come to offer to us when we reject Him. In rejecting Jesus, we condemn ourselves. In accepting Jesus, we are saved by His love.
Conversely, the Lord said, “And indeed, everybody who does wrong hates the light and avoids it, for fear his actions should be exposed.” Those who live in sin live in fear that their wrong doings would be exposed. That is why there is no peace and no real joy. Fear comes not so much from guilt but from shame. We are all afraid of shame because of our ego. We want to feel good in the eyes of man. The world lives in darkness because it fears the light of truth and love. But if we walk in the light, in truth and love, then we have nothing to fear, nothing to lose. Jesus said, “the man who lives by the truth comes out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God.” In the first reading, the apostles were arrested by those who wished to hide the light. They were put in prison. They did not want the apostle to expose their sins and their crimes. Those who live in sin prefer darkness for fear that when exposed they will be shamed and they will have to change their lives.
Yet, the fact that the angel released them shows that the light cannot be hidden for long. Truth and love will prevail in the end. Sometimes, it seems that evil is overpowering. But the justice and love of God is greater than us all. We can cheat others. We can even pretend that we can cheat God. But we cannot cheat ourselves. Those of us who live in sin and selfishness cannot pretend that they are really happy. Deep within them, they know that their conscience condemns them. They have no peace, no joy, no love and no freedom. How could such a man find life? He is lost!
Hence, as Christians, we are called to witness to the light, like the apostles. We read that when “the angel of the Lord opened the prison gates and said as he led them out, ‘Go and stand in the Temple, and tell the people all about this new Life.’ They did as they were told; they went into the Temple at dawn and began to preach.” We must continue to expose sin and evil in society and be the conscience of society. The Church remains the moral spokesman for the world. If we as Church do not speak out, then who else can assume the role of the prophet today? We do it not because we condemn the world or those who live in sin, but we do it out of charity, compassion and love, like how God loves us. We must be courageous. For love of them, like the apostles, we will sacrifice our lives. For love of God, we choose to love them even unto death.
We can do this by relying on God’s power. The psalmist prays, “Look towards him and be radiant; let your faces not be abashed. This poor man called, the Lord heard him and rescued him from all his distress. The angel of the Lord is encamped around those who revere him, to rescue them. Taste and see that the Lord is good. He is happy who seeks refuge in him.” God will send His angels to help us to open the prison doors of our people trapped in sin and ignorance. Only when we remember the taste of God’s love and mercy can we find the courage and tenacity of the apostles to preach the Good News with boldness in and out of season.