Whether I’m talking with a new Christian or a seasoned believer, I often have a similar conversation. Each of us confesses that we struggle to pray, to overcome some old habit, or to find joy and peace in the Christian life. Then we both ask a question that often lies behind our other struggles: How do I really know and feel God’s love for me?
Comedian Brian Regan had a bit about Pop-Tarts. He asks, Have you ever noticed Pop-Tarts come with directions? Could there be a simpler food item? And if there weren’t directions, what would people do? Just stand there with the little foil packaging, asking, “How do I get this goodness in me?”
That’s how I feel about God’s love. It can’t be that hard. He says he loves us. We know it. We believe it. But it’s all too possible to know the right doctrines, participate in a healthy church, and even lead others in a loving way yet remain spiritually cold, dry, and detached. I know from experience. I know God loves me and Jesus died for my sins, and I know the Spirit lives within me. But these powerful truths often remain intellectual. Perhaps you relate. The Ephesians could.
Paul’s Prayer for an Experience of God
The Ephesians seem like the all-stars of the early church. There’s very little rebuke in Paul’s letter to them, and it seems like they’re ready for the “meat” of theology and spiritual formation. Yet even the Ephesians struggled to experience God’s love. This challenge is as old as Christianity itself.
‘How do I really know and feel God’s love for me?’ This is, almost always, the thing beneath the the thing, what lies below the other struggles.
At the end of Paul’s long theological treatise (chap.1–3) and before his practical instructions (chap. 4–6), he pauses in 3:14–21 to pray for the Ephesians. He falls to his knees, begging God for them to know and experience Christ’s love.
Our posture in prayer is often quite revealing. If I’m sitting at my desk with my Bible open and writing out prayers in a journal, that’s an appropriate posture for a prayer for understanding and wisdom. If I’m lying in bed praying as I drift off to sleep, that’s an appropriate act of submitting my life wholly to God. But if I’m on my knees praying aloud or in groans too deep for words, that’s a moment of profound struggle or passion. That’s where Paul is.
But there’s something odd about the apostle’s prayer. He asks that Christ would dwell in our hearts, that we would know Christ’s love, and that we would be filled with all God’s fullness. It’s odd because he told us in chapters 1–3 that each of these three things is already true of us. Why would he pray so intently for what we already have in Christ?
The Ephesians know these things, but their knowledge isn’t sufficient; there’s another level of knowledge and experience they lack.
When Paul prays that we would “grasp” all God has for us (v. 18, NIV), this word can mean to “wrestle with,” “sack and plunder” a place, or “overpower” someone. What’s Paul wanting us to wrestle with? With ourselves, with our souls, with our flesh and our inner being?
No, he prays that we may grasp Christ’s love, wrestling it into our hearts.
Knowing Christ’s Love Through the Spirit
Paul writes, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16–17 NIV). The source of our experience of God’s love is the Holy Spirit.
Tim Keller says Paul is praying for a “spiritual inner sensitivity to gospel truth”—that the Holy Spirit may prepare your inner being to grasp God’s love.
Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit is the primary difference between a dry, complacent believer and a warm, passionate one. The Spirit reveals God and his Word to us (Eph. 1:17; 3:5; 6:17), empowers us to live like Christ (Eph. 3:16; 5:18–19; 6:18), enlivens us with resurrection power (Rom. 8:9–11), and transforms us into Christ’s image with increasing glory (2 Cor. 3:18). It’s the Holy Spirit who enables us to taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8).
How Do We Get Christ’s Love in Our Hearts?
How does the Holy Spirit help us experience God?
Paul’s prayer finds its pinnacle here: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17–19, NIV).
Not long ago, we finished our basement, turning an unformed concrete space into a quaint living room and office. As we remodeled, I became increasingly familiar with the basement’s dimensions. Previously, I spent little time down there, and I couldn’t tell you how many square feet it was or the length of any wall. But now, after spending hours measuring, working, and meeting with contractors, I can tell you how wide and long and high and deep it is.
Paul describes a seamless combination of knowing and experiencing Christ’s love, and there are a few ways we can cultivate this combination.
1. Slow down and make time.
Hurry is one of my great life struggles. Even when I do slow down and make time for God (what a phrase that is), I still struggle to turn off my racing thoughts. Hurry quenches the Holy Spirit, so we must cut it out and make time for sustained seeking-and-listening prayer to experience God’s love.
2. Meditate on the Word.
Paul’s prayer is that God would strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner being. He’s praying with all his energy that we would learn to read the Bible, pray, and wrestle these truths into our hearts. This is the practice of biblical meditation.
George Muller discovered the importance of this:
I [saw] that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. . . . Now what is the food for the inner man? Not prayer, but the word of God; and here again, not the simple reading of the word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.
3. Meditate on the cross.
Paul’s prayer is that we’d grasp the love of Christ, not merely God’s love in general. Why does he emphasize Jesus’s love for us? To remind us to meditate on the cross.
He prays that we might have the power of the Holy Spirit for experiencing God . . . so that we would grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.
Hurry quenches the Holy Spirit, so we must cut it out and make time for sustained seeking-and-listening prayer.
To paraphrase Keller: How wide? Wide enough to embrace us as we are.
How long? “To the end of the age,” Jesus said (Matt. 28:20).
How high? As high as the heavens where he reigns.
How deep? It’s deeper than the grave, deeper than the pit of hell. Many readers throughout Christian history have seen in this phrase a reminder of Jesus’s body lifted up on the cross—stretched wide and long from hand to hand, pulled high and deep from head to toe. We cannot fathom the depth of God’s love for us in Christ. It’s always deeper still.
There’s no better way to get his love into our hearts.
Slow down and make time. Meditate on the Word. And grasp with all your energy, with the eternal power of the Holy Spirit, the great love of God in Christ demonstrated for you on the cross.