The tenderness of His love
I was sitting in my study at home, looking out the window at a cardinal, a splash of bright red against the brown drab of tree branches just recovering from the cold of winter. It was a morning that, for some reason, anxious thoughts had been going through my mind. And there sat the cardinal reminding me that the same God who cares for it and had clothed it so gorgeously also has concern for me.
The following morning the cardinal returned. But before noticing him, I’d spotted another feathered creature – smaller and almost completely camouflaged among the auburn branches. And the thought of the previous morning came back to me – about the unimaginable love of God. I thought about how small that cardinal appeared from my window, just 20 yards away, and how infinitesimally tiny (in fact, how totally invisible) it would be if I were flying in a jet at 35,000 feet. Then I imagined how exceedingly more difficult it would be to see the other bird – the brown one. Yet God sees them both across the limitless light-years of space. And He cares about them!
In Jesus we find someone who loves and cares like that. Speaking to the common people gathered on a hillside in Galilee, He spoke words that His life among them would soon put into practice: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26).1
The Gospels are chock-full of illustrations of the tender love of Jesus. In what follows I have space for just a few.
Love for a cornered woman
The story appears in John 8:1-11. The woman had been caught in adultery – in the very act, said the men who’d dragged her into Jesus’ presence. And they knew their Moses well. The great prophet of Sinai had said that such offenders should be stoned in public. “What’s your verdict?” they demanded.
Jesus might have excused Himself. After all, He was not part of the legal establishment and was not vested with judicial powers recognized in any Judean court of law. So why would they come to Him? It would have been entirely proper for Him to pass.
But He wouldn’t. For cowering before Him was a distraught woman, nightmares of a horrible death filling every corner of her tortured mind. Her heart pounding, her pulse racing, the tears of shame flowing down her haggard face, she expects the stones to start striking her fragile body any minute. Then, horror of horrors, she hears from Jesus’ lips what would surely be her death sentence: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (verse 7, RSV). Regarding all her accusers as flawless adherents of the law – and faultless – she fully expects Jesus’ words to seal her doom and send a barrage of rocks hurtling down upon her all at once.
She braces herself, her face in her hands (as I picture it), her anxiety level at maximum. Moments pass. Nothing – only silence. Daring at last to look up from her crouch, she finds herself alone with Jesus. “Where are those accusers of yours?” Jesus asks her gently. “Has no one condemned you?” (verse 10, NKJV). “No one, sir,” she replies. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declares. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (verse 11).
The woman does not skip as she departs – perhaps considering that reaction inappropriate for the situation. Nor does she shout – that would have been unseemly for the culture. Instead she quietly walks away, her heart exploding with joy, the tears flowing – only now they’re tears of joy. Her every step singing with new hope, she can live again, because she’d come face to face with love personified – the most tender love she never knew existed.
Love for a bragging turncoat
Jesus had a tender love for all His disciples (John 13:1). Amid all the tenseness and confusion of the night of His betrayal in Gethsemane, He was still protective of them. “If you are looking for me,” He said to those ready to arrest Him, “then let these men go” (John 18:8).
The way He dealt with Peter spoke volumes, and portrayed His love for all the others. The bragging disciple had pledged his unwavering support for Jesus that very evening of the arrest. Even if all others abandon you, he’d said to Jesus, I never will! (see Matthew 26:31-33.) But as the hours of the night wore on, he would shamefully cower under the accusing eyes of ordinary bystanders and deny in the strongest language that he’d ever set eyes upon a man named Jesus. When for the third time they tried to nail him, he’d call down curses upon himself, swearing: “I don’t know the man!” (verse 74).
At that precise moment a rooster crowed and “the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter” (Luke 22:61). “Then, Peter remembered.…And he went outside and wept bitterly” (verses 61, 62).
What message did Jesus’ expression send to His turncoat disciple? Here’s this insight from a classic on the life of Jesus: “While the degrading oaths were fresh upon Peter’s lips, and the shrill crowing of the cock was still ringing in his ears, the Saviour turned from the frowning judges, and looked full upon His poor disciple. At the same time Peter’s eyes were drawn to his Master. In that gentle countenance he read deep pity and sorrow, but there was no anger there.”2
Extraordinary! Jesus had given Peter every advantage, every privilege – making him part of the inner circle, so to speak. The disciple should have known better, should have done better. And Jesus had every right to be profoundly disappointed – and, indeed, He was. But as their eyes met that night in the judgment place, the disciple saw no anger in Jesus’ face, no sign of retaliation or revenge.
“The sight of that pale, suffering face, those quivering lips, that look of compassion and forgiveness, pierced [Peter’s] heart like an arrow. Conscience was aroused.…A tide of memories rushed over him. The Saviour’s tender mercy, His kindness and long-suffering, His gentleness and patience toward His erring disciples – all was remembered.…He reflected with horror upon his own ingratitude, his falsehood, his perjury. Once more he looked at his Master, and saw a sacrilegious hand raised to smite Him in the face. Unable longer to endure the scene, he rushed, heartbroken, from the hall.…At last he found himself in Gethsemane.…On the very spot where Jesus had poured out His soul in agony to His Father, Peter fell upon his face, and wished that he might die.”3
It’s not the fire and brimstone that’s most powerful in leading people to repentance, nor the scolding, the shaming, and the browbeating. Rather it’s love, sheer love, the tender love of Christ. That’s what Peter saw that night in the eyes of Jesus. That’s what he felt in that critical moment. That’s what broke his heart. And that’s what’ll break ours as well. It can happen at any time – during a religious meeting, in a class on physics, while you drive to work, or as you read the Bible. And it can occur when sitting in your study looking out the window at cardinals. His tender love knows no barriers and no bounds. It speaks to us wherever we might be, and it reaches us wherever we go.
Love for a lonely woman of another race
We can see the tenderness of Jesus’ love in the way He handled the people whose lives He touched along the way, regardless of race or ethnic origin. Consider the woman of Samaria, for example (John 4:4-26). Ignoring societal strictures, He first of all took time to recognize her for what she was – a human being created in the image of God. He gave her the time of day – stunning her – and even asked a favor. His sheer love for her had broken the ice. All He could see before Him was a valued woman in desperate need of the grace that He’d come to bring. “If you knew the gift of God,” He said to her, His heart yearning for her spiritual welfare, “and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
As their conversation continued, Jesus would deftly handle the emotional issue of the difference in worship between Jews and Samaritans, and broach in the tenderest manner possible the delicate situation of her social life.
The woman was not a prostitute, not according to John’s account. She’d lived with five men, but they were “husbands,” Jesus said (verses 17, 18). The story of that portion of her life – how and why these husbands came and went – we do not know. Nor do we know why she’d now chosen to live in a common-law relationship. But it was clear to Jesus that it had all taken its toll, making her a pariah in the community, perhaps evidenced (as some have pointed out) by the lonely time of day she chose to fetch her water.
Totally immersed in His conversation with the needy woman, Jesus lost all sense of time and of the gripping hunger that He’d previously been feeling. True, it showed His intensity for His mission; it also displayed a love both personal and tender. Touched by His utter graciousness, the woman found herself craving the water He had to give, yearning for the spiritual worship He described, and asking about Messiah. When the Messiah comes, she said to Him – I believe with a glint of expectation in her eyes that she’d indeed chanced upon the long-hoped-for Person – He will tell us everything.
That was too much for Jesus! Breaking His accustomed reticence on the subject of His identity, He told her plainly: “I who speak to you am he” (verse 26).
As the woman, abandoning her waterpots in her excitement upon receiving this astonishing revelation, rushed back into town, her words to her townspeople spoke volumes about the tender manner in which Jesus had dealt with her that day. I find it significant that of all the things He had talked to her about, the part she mentioned to them turned out to be the very things of which she’d been most ashamed: “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (verse 29).
Who else but Jesus could bring my sordid past to my attention in such a way that I’m thereby drawn to Him in love and adoration? Who else can make the dark events of yesterday become for me a window of hope for tomorrow? And who else can love me with such tender compassion! In Jesus we have a picture of indiscriminate, unconditional, scandalous love – love for every human being that He met.
Love for a rebellious nation
As the triumphal procession approached Jerusalem that Sunday of Passion Week, Jesus halted on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem to utter a lament on Israel’s coming calamity: “If you…had only known on this day what would bring you peace.…The days will come…when your enemies will…hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls” (Luke 19:42-44).
The lament in Luke connects thematically to that in Matthew 23:33-36, and exposes the tenderness, the heartbreak, that lay beneath the pronouncement of impending judgment: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . , how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37).
The story of David and Absalom (2 Samuel 13-15) comes as close as any to a human model of God’s tender love for us in our rebellion. The narrative documents the strained relationship between the young man and his royal father, David (a tension provoked by Absalom’s murder of his half brother Amnon for sexually violating Absalom’s sister, Tamar). The account takes us through Absalom’s self-imposed exile; his return following an ingenious scheme devised by the head of David’s army; his temporary reconciliation with his father; and, finally, his attempted coup. The story describes how David, accompanied by the rest of the royal household, hastily abandons the palace and the capital in the wake of his son’s rebellion. It crushed and devastated the king to know that the one now hunting him down was not his jealous predecessor, but his own son.
As the fighting commenced, however, David charged his generals to protect Absalom’s life and keep him safe from harm: “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake” (2 Samuel 18:5). Nevertheless, Absalom is killed. And given the trauma the young prince had brought upon the nation and his father, what astonishes us is David’s reaction upon learning of his death. “The king was shaken,” the text says. “He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 18:33).
It’s a cry that finds an echo in Jesus’ agonizing lament over Jerusalem that historic day: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem….” No wonder the people called Jesus “Son of David.” We hear it from the lips of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, outside Jericho (Mark 10:47), and we hear it from the Canaanite woman who came to Him (Matthew 15:22). It’s “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Never “Jesus, Son of Adam,” or “Jesus, Son of Abraham,” or “Jesus, Son of Elijah.” No, almost invariably it was “Jesus, Son of David” (see Matthew 9:27; 20:30; Luke 18:38), and always in the context of mercy and compassion.
Whatever else this pattern says, I believe it speaks of One whose love and tender mercy reminded people of David’s attitude of tenderness and mercy to an undeserving son. We might speculate as to what would have happened had the royal forces captured Absalom alive and how his father would have treated him. Unfortunately, we shall never know for sure. But we can reasonably infer, based on all the other details of the story, that that father’s heart would not have loved him any less.
In that respect he resembles Jesus, who, while knowing how evil we are, yet chooses to love us and accept us. Which brings to mind a heartrending story that appeared in one of my local papers in the fall of 2006.
Here’s how it began: “A talkative 9-year-old boy came to Helen Briggs on Valentine’s Day 2000. She was a foster mother with years of tough love and scores of troubled kids behind her. But she grew to love this boy. Within the year, she’d talked her husband into adopting him. “Now, six years later, Briggs and her husband, James…are taking the highly unusual step of trying to unadopt him.”
The trouble commenced for them in 2003, when the boy, then 12, “sexually molested a 6-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl still in diapers.” As the issue went to court, the adoptive parents discovered other troubling details that led to their petition to relinquish custody. Among other things, abuse by his alcohol- and drug-addicted biological parents had injured the boy’s brain stem and affected his ability to gauge the passage of time. Seven times he had undergone hospitalization in psychiatric institutions and was possibly psychotically bipolar. In addition, he’d threatened to kill himself and had begun hearing voices.
In short, the adoptive parents discovered they had a damaged product on their hands. “You don’t want to throw somebody away,” his adoptive mother said. “But sometimes you have to.”4
That Virginia couple didn’t know what they were getting into, and all reasonable people would readily understand their predicament. But when He chose us, God fully knew how wretched we were, yet did it anyway. And to come into contact with the tender love of Jesus is to know that we’ll never find ourselves unadopted.
Love that goes deep and personal
Charles Templeton, once an associate of Billy Graham, had left the church, becoming a confirmed atheist and a bitter critic of religion. In his book The Case for Faith, evangelical writer Lee Strobel tells about his meeting with Templeton in the man’s Toronto apartment.
As their conversation proceeded, Strobel asked Templeton what he thought of Jesus. And here’s part of what followed, as Strobel tells it.
“Templeton’s body language softened. It was as if he suddenly felt relaxed and comfortable in talking about an old and dear friend.… ‘He was,’ Templeton began, ‘the greatest human being who has ever lived.’…
“‘You sound like you really care about him.’
“‘Well, yes, he’s the most important thing in my life.…‘I…I…I,’ he stuttered, searching for the right word, ‘I know it may sound strange, but I have to say…I adore him!’”
“I wasn’t sure how to respond. ‘You say that with some emotion,’ I said.
“‘Well, yes. Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus.’
“Abruptly, Templeton cut short his thoughts. There was a brief pause, almost as if he was uncertain whether he should continue.
“‘Uh…but…no,’ he said slowly, ‘he’s the most….’ He stopped, then started again. ‘In my view,’ he declared, ‘he is the most important human being who has ever existed.’”
“That’s when Templeton uttered the words I never expected to hear from him. ‘And if I may put it this way,’ he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I…miss…him!’”5
In that last reaction I sense a universal yearning – the longing for a love that’s bigger than ourselves, one that transcends our rebellion and our estrangement and is stable, unchangeable, and unconditional. The love we find in Jesus is all that. It’s the tenderest that human hearts can know.
Roy Adams (Ph.D., Andrews University) is the associate editor of the Adventist Review and is the author of several books and numerous articles. This article is an excerpt from his latest book, The Wonder of Jesus (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2007). E-mail: email@example.com.
Notes and references
- Except as otherwise stated, all Scripture passages are from the New International Version.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), pp. 712, 713.
- Ibid., p. 713.
- Brigid Schulte, “Virginia Parents Trying to Unadopt Troubled Boy,” Washington Post, October 9, 2006, A1, 11.
- Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 17, 18.