1 John 3:19-24 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
19 When we love others, we know that we belong to the truth, and we feel at ease in the presence of God. 20 But even if we don’t feel at ease, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if we feel at ease in the presence of God, we will have the courage to come near him. 22 He will give us whatever we ask, because we obey him and do what pleases him. 23 God wants us to have faith in his Son Jesus Christ and to love each other. This is also what Jesus taught us to do. 24 If we obey God’s commandments, we will stay one in our hearts with him, and he will stay one with us. The Spirit that he has given us is proof that we are one with him.
1 John 3:19-24
19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given us.
In this letter, John has been reminding his readers all that God has done and is doing in and for them in Christ and what it means for them to abide in Christ, to receive this new life He is giving them. Jesus is the “expiation for our sins”(2:2), and as we turn to Him, confessing our sins, He is “faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”(1:9) God has made us His very children in and through His Son. God is not just forgiving us, He is making us clean and whole as His children, giving us a share in all of who Jesus is. Being His child affects all of our lives: our relationships with other believers, our relationship with the world, our wants and desires, the sin in our lives. This inward reality of new life in Christ has outward implications.
There must have been some who were telling these believers that their inward faith in Christ did not have implications for their outward lives and relationships. John assures his readers that God is at work making them His children in every aspect of their lives. And as we abide in Christ, and obey Him out of a trust in His faithful working in us, we participate in this process of making this new life we have in Christ manifest in all we are involved in. We see that He is making us less enamored with sin and more able to see others as Christ sees them and more desirous of loving them in Christ rather than being jealous or condescending. As we see His real work, we obey out of hope of His living presence and continuing work in our lives. So we choose to do the loving thing out of hope that He will enable us to love more truly in the process. We choose to confess sin in our lives instead of hiding it or justifying it. And, we do so out of hope that He will indeed forgive us and cleanse us.
In the section preceding this passage, John tells them that as Christ has laid down His life for them, they are to love others “in deed and in truth” not just in words. God is at work in us enabling our relationships to be more loving. So we can step out and do loving things in the hope and evidence of God’s real transforming work in us. Now John wants to deal with what happens when our hearts condemn us–when we’re feeling guilty. Since “it does not yet appear what we shall be”(3:2)– we daily see evidence in our lives that we are still on the way . It is not perfectly clear (sometimes obviously unclear!) that I am truly God’s daughter. So, I am tempted to condemn myself for the distance I still see between who God is making me to be and who I appear to be today.
John says that we can look at the evidence in our lives of God’s changing us when our hearts are condemning us. We can look at the outward manifestations of the inward reality. There will be some evidence of His work. Those times when I found a new freedom from jealousy of another or a way to love another in my actions are signs that God is indeed working. They can feed my faith and help me to hope in His ultimate transformation over all these other things with which I am still struggling.
The reason we can take the time to ask God to show us the evidence of His work and be reassured by it when we are feeling condemned is because “God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” God is not our feelings so how we feel at any particular moment does not tell us absolutely what is true about God and His presence and work in our lives. God knows everything, we only “see through a glass darkly” to borrow one of Paul’s phrases. God knows us, He knows where He is taking us and He knows what He is doing now in our lives. When I am in a place of self-condemnation, I am tempted to believe these feelings are the reality. John reminds me here that God is at work and my feelings are not always (or maybe even often) capable of telling me the truth about who I am in Christ.
John goes on to say that when our hearts are not condemning us “we have confidence before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” When we are in a state of self-condemnation then, we do not feel confidence before God and we do not know what to ask and cannot receive easily from God. That is because when we are condemning ourselves, we are no longer counting on God to do His work in our lives. Instead of seeing that our part is to participate in what God does in us by obeying Him out of trust in His activity in us, we come to believe we are the ones who make ourselves His children by our own efforts. We feel thrown back on ourselves. We believe that the truth about us is in our condemning ourselves. We are not abiding in Christ and His work.
I certainly know the truth of this section in my own life. I lack confidence in God’s love for me when I condemn myself. I can’t see clearly what to pray for and how to receive from Him because I struggle to believe He is loving, present, and at work in me.
This turning away from condemnation to confidence happens when we obey God and so do what pleases Him. And, God is not pleased with my self-condemnation! In v. 23 John says that to obey God is to “believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.” There it is again–to obey is to act out of a counting on, trusting in, living by, God’s presence and activity in the world and in us. It pleases Him when we choose to believe (despite any feelings to the contrary) that He loves us and is making us the children He created us to be. As we obey out of this trust in His faithful work rather than in our own efforts, we abide in Him and He in us.
Lastly, John says that we ultimately know Jesus abides in us by “the Spirit which he has given us.” Again, what we count on is the objective reality of who God is, not on ourselves. It is God’s Spirit that enables us to abide and grow as God’s children. He does not leave us to work out our transformation on our own. Rather, it is in the Spirit’s work that we are to place our trust. And sometimes (often?) that work is deeply hidden in our lives, only to become apparent much later in our lives. But we can count on the Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, no matter what.
This was a very encouraging passage for me. God can and will enable us to trust in Him when we are feeling guilty. We can turn our moments of self-condemnation over to the one who knows us better than we know ourselves and is at work making us wholly His.
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