"Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
Singing this children's song always made me feel self-conscious. Not just because of its age appeal, but because of its words. Yes, the Bible says Jesus loves me. And preachers say he loves me so much, he would have died just for me had I been the only person in the world.
But he didn't die just for me. Jesus' love extends to everyone who claims him. Receiving that love can seem like being part of a class-action lawsuit: The terms of agreement apply to me as they do to millions of others. While reassuring, his love hasn't always felt very personal.
And though I believe Jesus loves me, I haven't always been confident he likes me. As a child, I'd been told no one who really knew me would like me. Of course, I'd learned God, who knows me completely, loves me unconditionally, no matter how unlovely I am. But is that love coupled with gladness? After all, I've realized from personal experience I can be loved without being enjoyed.
Growing up, I often heard my parents say they loved all their children equally. While I believed my parents, I also knew some of my siblings gave my parents more pleasure than the rest of us kids did. I yearned for my mother's face to light up when I entered her room. But all too often, my childhood faults alienated me from her. I was too loud, too bossy, too demanding, too much like my father. Eventually, I withdrew from my mother's presence rather than risk disapproval.
Of course, I knew God was perfect and my parents weren't. But one particular image of Jesus convinced me he liked some followers more than he liked others. In fact, Jesus appeared to have a clear favorite. Over and over, in paintings, movies, and Bible illustrations, I saw Jesus surrounded by his disciples at the Last Supper. And one of the men, always pictured next to Jesus, was actually resting in Jesus' lap.
That disciple was John, and he had a nickname that filled me with longing. John was "the disciple Jesus loved." What a claim! This phrase was attached to a warm tenderness. Any assurances of God's feelings toward me seemed detached from love's caress.
In my mind, John was nearly perfectthe meek and mild male counterpart of the Virgin Mary. I wasn't like John. Despite my strivings to emulate him, my personality persisted strong and loud.
I knew God used these traits, allowing me to raise my voice against injustice toward outcasts and the poor. But I couldn't see myself as Jesus' bosom buddy. Jesus reserved that status for gentler souls, such as one of the women at my church who was kind, quiet, patient, and humble. I could easily imagine Jesus opening his arms wide to greet her.
I grew resentful of these favored followers. The week before Easter, while preparing a Bible study on Jesus' last days, I again encountered John, "the disciple Jesus loved," seated beside him at the table. I wondered how John earned that unfair title. No one, not even Peter the Rock, could top it. Being called a heart's treasure was better than being labeled a hardhead.
I felt ashamed of my envy, and sad. I owed Jesus everything, and he certainly didn't owe me any favoritism. I just wanted to know God was glad to have me at his table, too.
Then, as I read on in my study, I saw a different side of John. Just after Jesus predicted his betrayal and death to his 12 disciples, two of themJohn and Jamesstarted arguing over front-row seats in heaven (Mark 10:3245). Even the disciples' mother joined in, asking for special favors from Jesus (Matthew 20:2021).
John's personality wasn't meek and mild after all. When Jesus called John as a disciple, Jesus gave him a very different nickname, one not so endearing: "Son of Thunder" (Mark 3:17). Jesus rebuked this loved one for his pride, power grasping, and foolishness. John was far from perfect!
So how did John become known as "the disciple Jesus loved"? I realized Jesus didn't give John this nickname. John simply claimed it. John wasn't necessarily Jesus' favorite; he simply recognized the ability of Christ's love to redefine self-image. John understood Jesus could know him completely, call him "Son of Thunder" to his face, and still desire his friendship and enjoy his companionship.
This unique love drew John to trust Jesus entirely, to sit as close to him as possible, even to risk rebuke by confiding in him a desire for fame and honor. And John's joy in this relationship spilled onto the pages of Scripture. John's calling himself this nickname in his gospel and Bible letters isn't a threat or an obnoxious boast. It's an invitation to be confident in God's love.
God used John's nickname to set me free from my doubts about Jesus' love. If John could call himself this name, I could, too. The more I thought of myself as "the disciple Jesus loves," the more I could trust God with who I really am.
I still have my strong personality and mixed-up desires. I still long to be better than I am. I still might merit the nickname "Daughter of Thunder."
But my new nickname brings me constant joy. Sometimes, I confide to God I really must be his favorite, because he sure does like me. Then I laugh out loud. I'm not worried anymore that Jesus sighs when I enter his presence. I think his face lights up with affection. Because I'm "the disciple Jesus loves." And that love is very personal, for I'm fully lovedand likedas fully me.
Jennie McLaurin is a freelance writer and pediatrician who lives with her family in Washington.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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