Monday, October 26, 2015

God loves us, but do we love God?

Jesus and his friend
Perhaps the central theological affirmation about God in the Christian tradition, after the affirmation that he is incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, is this: God is love (1 John 4.8). Indeed, this is emphasized greatly especially in some circles, for a number of reasons. Among these reasons is the laudable concern that ordinary Christians, cognizant of their own disposition to sin and to fall short of the standards of righteousness, might not despair that God is ready to destroy them at any moment. Far from it! God loves you as a parent loves her children, and so wants your development and your growth, not your destruction: For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God (Ezek 18.32).

Yet I worry at times that the constant affirmation of God's love for even the worst sinners can be taken advantage of by the spiritually immature. Some persons might hear again and again that God loves them, and this provides a comfort for them when they will inevitably do some wrong. Yet constantly to seek assurance that the other person loves us when we will do something we know is wrong seems like a short distance from engaging in an abusive relationship with the other. It is close to abusive and disrespectful regularly to seek assurance that the other person, whom we will wrong, still loves us.

The question becomes: do we reciprocate this love? In fact, to love God is a commandment. Notice how Jesus answers the question regarding which of the commandments of the Torah is the greatest:

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment (Mt 22.34-8).

It seems strange that we be commanded to love God. Isn't love something we engage in freely? Is it right to demand that people love God?

These questions are right on the money. The presupposition is that we don't need to be told to love God; either we will or we won't. Yet the fact that we have such a command tells us that there is need for it. But what might that need be?

To command that we love God tells us first that God is lovable. You can't be commanded to love someone who is not lovable, just as you can't be commanded to do something which impossible. So we infer from the reality of the commandment that God is lovable. And in fact the Bible goes out of its way to demonstrate to us that God is eminently lovable, that everything worth loving is found in God. Among other things, I point to this line in John's first letter:

... if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.1-2).

Notice what John says here: not that Christ's death is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, but that Christ himself, the person, is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. The suggestion, as I understand it, is that to atone for the sins of the whole world at great cost to himself defines the very person Jesus Christ -- that is his life, his existence, his personality, his personally chosen identity. This is how Jesus Christ understands himself and how he understands his life: a continuous advocacy on behalf of sinners, even at great cost to himself.

Knowing that God is like this, how can we do anything but love him? How can you do anything but love the person who has made it the purpose of his life to ensure that things go well for you, to save you if you are in trouble, and do everything he can to ensure that you enjoy eternal life? Such a person can be reasonably met with no other response than love. But the bible teaches us that Jesus Christ reveals God's character to us, because he is God incarnate. Jesus' life is God's life! No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (John 1.18).

Yet if we are commanded to love God, it must also be because we have to be told this. In fact, Jesus says that the second greatest commandment is closely related to the first one: And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Mt 22.39). John connects obedience to God's commands with love for God: whoever obeys [God's] word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection (1 John 2.5). And what else are God's commands except commandments to love other persons as we love ourselves? The implication is clear: if we do not love God, we will not obey his commandments, which means we will not love others nor treat them as we should.

God commands us to love him because he knows that this is the only hope for the world. Only if people love God, and therefore love the people that he has made with the same divine love that he has for them, will there be hope of salvation for the human race. So he commands us to love him, because otherwise we won't do it, and therefore neither will we treat other persons with love.

Indeed, the bible suggests that our natural disposition is to hate God and to be suspicious of him. Consider the example of the Hebrews: after the miracles of the exodus, and after God's numerous provisions in the desert, they come upon the land promised to them only to find that it is inhabited by very powerful and stronger nations than they. The conclusion they naturally come to is: It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us (Deut 1.27). After all the demonstrations of God's favor and mercy, they are convinced that he is out to kill them!

God commands us to love him because we are naturally disposed not to. And if we do not love God, if we are convinced that we are alone in the world and we have to look out for number one at all costs, we will not love other persons, either. Instead we will mistreat them and abuse them for our own ends. So God commands us to love him, because he is perfectly lovable, he wants only our good, and realizing this, we will learn to love others as we should, as well.