It’s hard to explain love to a preschooler. You’d be wasting your breath giving a definition like “warm personal attachment.” Instead, we read stories like The Runaway Bunny, in which a young bunny tries to run from his mamma, but she lovingly, and sometimes stealthily, finds him and brings him home. In addition to reading far-fetched stories, parents “explain” love by caring for the children, even when they don’t want us to.
Even adults find it hard to understand God’s over-the-top, spring-loaded desire to show mercy and lovingkindness to his children. That’s why God’s love also demands a story.
In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Phillip Yancey writes, “Since stories are easier to remember than concepts or outlines, the parables also helped preserve [Jesus’] message:…it is one thing to talk in abstract terms about the infinite, boundless love of God. It is quite another to tell of a man who lays down his life for his friends….”
The word parable comes from the Greek words “para”—alongside and “bole”—to throw. A parable is a story with familiar elements thrown alongside an unfamiliar truth. When we compare the two, we learn something new.
When Jesus told parables, he described familiar settings—a farmer’s field, a well-traveled road, a pasture. He depicted characters with whom his listeners could identify—a parent, a traveler, a herdsman. The familiar elements drew an outline of an unfamiliar kind of love.
In a culture that disowned rebellious children, he told of a father, waiting, watching, and finally running to meet his wasteful son (See Luke 15:11-32).
In a culture that reinforced ethnic biases, he told of a traveler who tore his own garments to bandage an enemy (See Luke 10:25-37).
In a culture that viewed possessions as a mark of God’s favor, he told of a shepherd who left his herd in search of a single lost lamb (Luke 15:1-7).
Through a series of vignettes, Jesus drew an outline of how he loves us. But his first-century listeners didn’t get the full picture. To them, his outline seemed like arbitrary scribbling.
When I was little, I loved art projects. Watercolors, tissue paper, crayons, and hot glue were my love language, but my creative genius outmatched my skill level and my scant art supplies. I cried when too much water and paint dissolved my paper and it tore. When my popsicle sticks wouldn’t stick together, I learned that even hot glue has its limits. My mom saw my disappointment and suggested a simpler alternative.
She taught me to scribble slowly.
I’d outline a huge figure-eight on my paper, and without picking up my pencil, I’d draw waves like frequencies through it. As a drawing, my slowly-scribbled wavelengths made no sense. My page was a design of intersecting curves and lines. But when I had scribbled from edge to edge, I had the outline for what would become my crayon mosaic.
I filled in every oddly shaped section with a different color. If there were more than 64 spaces, I ran out of crayons, but I’d reuse my favorites, making sure the last pink was far away from the first pink.
When I had colored the final space, it looked like stained glass—or Crayola-stained paper—and I was thrilled with my colorful masterpiece.
When Jesus told parables to outline the shape of his love, his listeners saw only scribbles.
What father welcomes a wasteful son? Who cares two cents about someone who hates you? What kind of irresponsible shepherd leaves a herd to find a measly, disoriented lamb?
They couldn’t imagine it. So he cast a vision for that kind of love with far-fetched stories to display a magnificent truth they wouldn’t understand until later.
The outline of God’s love was shaped like a cross, and Jesus colored it with the story of his life, death, and resurrection on our behalf.
It seems fitting that on the first day of Lent, the shape of God’s love is often drawn upon us.
God’s love was shaped like sacrifice. Not the kind that gives up fries or coffee, but the more-than-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus who laid down his life for people who didn’t know they needed him.
“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
Could you throw a party for a kid who squandered half your net worth? Would you foot the hotel bill indefinitely for a person who hated you? Should you leave your job to chase down a disoriented employee and carry them to safety?
Sacrificial love is difficult by nature. Just ask Jesus. But it isn’t always that extreme.
Whether you observe Lent or not, life in Christ is characterized by sacrificial love all year long.
You can lay down your life for others by laying down your phone when they speak. You can give up your routine to give someone a ride. You can sacrifice your alone-time to talk with a lonely neighbor.
We don’t sacrifice chocolate or Netflix to get something in return. We sacrifice ourselves for the glory of God and the benefit of others because Christ did it for us first.
“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Sacrificial love rarely comes naturally, but it transforms the giver and the receiver. And people who are changed by sacrificial love have beautiful stories that can’t be explained but are hard to forget.