Growing up a Christian, Jonny Gumbel thought he knew about love and specifically, God's love. But a surprising conversation with a monk opened his eyes to just how much he lived pushing love away.
He speaks to Christian Today about his new book, 'Loved', and the unexpected lessons he's learned about what it really means to love and be loved by God.
CT: 'God loves you' is a very familiar saying even for those who are not Christian but what does it actually mean?
Jonny: The temptation is to think of it as something abstract, theoretical or even a cliché. But as Christians we can go back to something very concrete, which is Jesus dying for us on the cross and being raised to new life. This was demonstrated in history: God's love for us has been proved once and for all without doubt because the cross shows us that there is nothing God would not do for us and there is nothing He has not done for us because of his love for us.
Paul talks about the love of God being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. It is something we experience through the Holy Spirit. When we hold onto these truths, they stop it from becoming too theoretical and we can understand it as something that has actually taken place in history, a real historical event, and the Holy Spirit makes it real in our hearts.
CT: You write about how you struggled with your identity for a while and that the difference came when you held onto the truth that God loves you. How important is it that we base our identity in this?
Jonny: The temptation is always to try and find our identity or the source of our love in other things. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we feel like we have to be successful or to appear a certain way or be kind or rely on the opinions of others for our sense of being loved.
It is when these things are shaken that we are presented with a choice. We can either try to latch onto them even more tightly or we can let go and just allow God to lead us.
That was really significant for me in my early twenties. There were lots of things that I had based my identity on, whether that was being compassionate or kind or good or part of a particular group.
And then I got ill and suddenly couldn't do anything. I couldn't be kind, I couldn't contribute to anything or prove myself to anyone in any way. All I could rely on was the love of God.
When things are taken away or we are shaken, that's the moment to hold onto this simple truth: even if I fail, even if people don't like me, even if this thing goes wrong, there's something that no one can take from me, which is that I am loved by God.
CT: You write about a monk who helped you to see that you were actually rejecting God's love. What did you learn through that?
Jonny: That was definitely a significant moment for me. Before that point, if someone did something kind for me I would feel like I had to do something kind for them or earn it in some way. If people offered help with something, I would brush it off and say 'oh no, it's fine, I can do it myself'.
The monk said to me, 'You don't let people love you.' And my initial response was to say that I think people do love me. And he said, 'Yes, people do love you but you don't let them love you.' I realised how hard I found it to let someone do something really kind for me without feeling like I had to pay it back or earn it.
From that moment on, I decided that I was just going to let people love me and say thank you. That changed the nature of my relationships because it allowed people to come closer.
CT: Your book includes a chapter on unity that addresses conflict and divisions. What does loving and being loved look like in the face of those divisions and the reality of our differences?
Jonny: A consistent theme in Paul's lessons is the total unity of heart, mind and spirit and I think that's because, for Paul, the unity of the Church is the evidence that the cross has worked. The cross is what bridges the gap between God and humanity and one another.
There is no greater gap than that between God and us. If the cross has managed to bridge the gap between perfect divinity and sinful humanity, then it must be able to bridge the gap between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, and every other division that can exist between us.
Debate and listening to one another can be helpful and beneficial, but ultimately it is the cross that has destroyed the dividing walls between us. Unity will always be a struggle because of our own human weakness and the sin that remains in our hearts but we can live with the hope that comes through the work of Jesus on the cross and the work of the Holy Spirit.
CT: There are a lot of people outside the Church whose first thought about God would not be that God loves them. Instead, they would have a picture of an angry, judgemental God. How can the Church get the message across that God loves them?
Jonny: Again, I would point to Jesus because Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Jesus is the picture we have of God, so instead of talking about God in the abstract, we have to talk about Jesus Christ - the cross, the resurrection and the way he loves the outsider.
But I also wonder whether, on the theme of anger, society is changing because there is a lot of quite righteous anger around in society - people are angry about inequality, racism and all forms of injustice. And it's important to point out that God is angry about these things too. Because the other options are either that He doesn't care or that He's pleased with it or that He's angry. The only one that connects with a God of love is that these things make him angry.
But of course, it's one thing to recognise that God may be angry about racism or inequality or abuse or violence 'out there'. But the more difficult thing is recognising when we might be part of the problems of the world. In that sense, God loves us but He might also be angry with some of the things we're doing. That's much harder to talk about.
CT: Who is your new book primarily written for?
Jonny: It's for people who are at the beginning of their Christian faith and those who don't have any faith at all. If I wanted to try and explain to someone who doesn't have a faith why I am a Christian, this is the book I would want to give to them. But for those of us who are Christian, all the way through our life there is always more to discover about the love of God and my hope is that there would be something in this book that helps people, whoever they are, to deepen their understanding and live more in the love of God.