Sunday, June 28, 2020

Right There in Front of My Face

From the Department of Missing the Obvious, let me present John 3:16, which I have been hearing my entire life without really hearing it.

This happens. Unfortunately it happens quite a bit. Bear with me. Perhaps the three things I am going to share with you today about God’s love are perfectly evident to you, and always have been.

Let’s just say they didn’t jump out at me, even though they were always right there in front of my face.

God’s Love is not Self-Referential

Our loves are too often nakedly self-referential, sometimes even narcissistic. We love best the child who resembles us most. The son who fails to reflect my priorities and morality and who pursues and builds his life around things I despise is effectively lost to me even though I may wish things were different. I either think about him less because I have given up on ever seeing the values I prize reflected in his choices, or I think about him more because I am obsessed with getting him to be more like me ... but either way it is his conformity to my will, my character and my desires that I am seeking. My love is self-referential. Likewise, we love our wives or husbands best when they love us back and when we believe they understand us most completely. When they don’t, we may entertain thoughts of getting ourselves a replacement, or thoughts of what life might be like if we were actually loved the way we want to be loved, even if we never plan to do anything about it. With very few exceptions, we love self-referentially. The Christian has to make a conscious effort to avoid acting on his natural affections rather than his higher affections.

But sometimes we imagine that God’s loves are equally self-referential. Oh, we probably wouldn’t put it exactly that way, but that’s what it amounts to. Because the Bible says so much about the importance of God’s glory, we may think no other priorities exist for God than his own glory. And perhaps in the broadest sense this is true, since everything good and everything worth doing in the universe contributes to God’s glory and draws our attention to it, while everything evil in the world stands in stark contrast to it, and every failure inherent in wickedness demonstrates the rightness and appropriateness of glorifying God in all that he is and all he has made. So if there were ever a time and place where self-occupation was justified and self-referentiality appropriate, it would certainly be in the person and work of the Almighty, since there is nothing in all that has been made which is so utterly worthy of endless contemplation.

And yet — marvel of marvels — God’s love is not directed only at objects which willingly participate in glorifying him, but also at those who are opposed to him at every level. He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.

When God had finished creating our world, he examined everything he had made and “behold, it was very good”. Its goodness was not per se a moral goodness, but a goodness of appropriateness for the purpose for which he had made each individual component of that world, and a goodness of accurate and faithful reflection of its Creator. Not only was mankind made in the image and after the likeness of God, but creation itself could not help but speak of him in various ways. The very mountains speak of his consistency, eternality and dependability. The stars speak of his grandeur and greatness. The lion speaks of his regality; the lamb, of his meekness; the mother hen, of his love for his people. The tender shoot growing out of the earth speaks of the humility and fruitfulness of the Son; the root, of Christ’s relationship to the Davidic line; the rain, of God’s blessings ... and so on quite literally ad infinitum. As originally designed, our planet was one giant divine self-reference.

Not so much anymore. Creation still speaks of God, but it does so in a hoarse whisper rather than an angelic chorus. The world is horribly marred, muted and mutilated, its inhabitants willful, perverse, rebellious and futile. Sheep stink; lions rip things apart arbitrarily; plants die in the hot sun; mountains erode under glaciation; rain fails to fall at all, or else pounds down in the form of hailstones, destroying months and years of work. And man? Let’s not talk about him, please.

But this is precisely when “God so loved the world”: when the world was at its worst, its resemblance to its Creator least obvious, its prospects for self-recovery nonexistent; when the vast preponderance of the Father’s inestimable love and the Son’s priceless sacrifice would, to all appearances, be wasted on those who would not appreciate and will never accept them.

God’s love is not self-referential.

God’s Love is not Abstract

Our loves are more abstract than we often imagine, especially with the advent of internet, by which the entire world has come to live in my bedroom. For some of us, the more abstract the better. The further away you are, the easier it is for me to feel good about you. Pretending to be moved to tears by a distant concept is actually way easier than displaying sacrificial love to real people in front of our faces.

We can emote endlessly on social media over some school shooting 3,000 miles away in a city we’d never heard of until this morning, then promptly direct a stream of verbal abuse at our children and spouses. For some in the current generation, a virtual friend — quite literally an abstraction, and probably a full-blown fabrication as well — is preferable to a flesh-and-blood companion. We can “love” the earth’s environment with such intensity that we wish its occupants dead so they wouldn’t despoil it further. Like Dostoevsky’s character in The Brothers Karamazov, we can love humanity while hating the actual humans in our orbit with all their blathering, nose-blowing, finger-snapping, dinner-lingering proximity. The thing we don’t know at all is actually much easier to love than the thing we know intimately and find a little bit, er, disgusting.

Forgive me if I begin to suspect that any alleged form of love which finds its fulfillment only in distant abstractions is in reality not very loving at all.

Need I point out that the love God displayed for our world in sending Christ into it is not the least bit like that? He did not just love the world because of some generalized affection for humanity, but in spite of a painfully intimate knowledge of each one of its citizens. Even the hairs of your head are all numbered. He knew each one of us before we were formed in the womb. He searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. He knows “the things that come into your mind”, most of which, if we are honest, we would rather he didn’t. There is nothing the least bit abstract about God’s love; it is probably the most specific and focused force in the universe. That unbelievable love for our world exists and declares itself in Christ notwithstanding the most comprehensive possible knowledge of some of the least desirable minds and hearts that can ever be conceived.

God knows things about you and me that if we ever admitted them to ourselves would send us running screaming. His love is not abstract.

God’s Love is not Sentimental

We do our unsaved children a tremendous disservice when we allow them to believe that the love God showed to the world in Christ has anything whatsoever to do with its objects. When we say that Jesus loves the little children, it is far too easy to assume this is because little children are especially appealing, or possess potential, or some such sentimental nonsense. Sure they possess potential: the potential to be the next Einstein, the next Mother Teresa, the next Judas or the next Mark David Chapman ... or just a plain old nobody, like so many of us.

When we teach that God loves the world, we must be careful not to leave the impression that this is because the world is especially precious, or deserving of anything other than an ultra-speedy assignation with the lake of fire. In fact, apart from eight human beings and a few pairs of animals, God has already wiped out the world he made once and has promised to do so again: the heavens and earth that now exist are “stored up for fire”. So let us not allow ourselves to imagine that the universe would miss us for a nanosecond if we were to wink out of existence right now. God did not display his love to mankind because he likes us. In our natural state, there is nothing to like.

The love of God in Christ was poured out on men who despised and rejected him, on men who took him with wicked hands and crucified him, and on men and women of former and subsequent generations who were not present at the cross but who would have done exactly the same things to the spotless Lamb of God if given the chance. It was poured out on alcoholics, adulterers, homosexuals, haters, thieves and tyrants. It was poured out on people who had great success in worldly terms, and on people who failed miserably at every possible human endeavor.

God’s love is not sentimental. It is not sparked into flame by its object, but is offered freely to all apart from any intrinsic merit or spiritual worth. It does not depend on us.

A Wonderful Relief

These truths are a wonderful relief to me.

If God’s love existed only for the sake of magnifying his own glory, he could be entirely glorified without benefiting me in the slightest or including me in his plans.

If God’s love were only the product of some generalized affection for humanity, he need not pursue a relationship with me at all.

If being the object of God’s affection requires me to be naturally lovable and remain that way, I am already Gehenna-bound, and nothing can change that.

But that is not how it is. And that truth was right there in front of my face the whole time.


  1. "God did not display his love to mankind because he likes us. In our natural state, there is nothing to like."

    Hmm, even though I appreciate your enthusiasm but this whole thing strikes me as overly and unnecessarily pessimistic. I do not think God has written us off yet :-). Also, let's face it, the joy to the person with a penchant for overanalysis is to explore "The Outer Limits" just for the fun of it.

    Here is, in my opinion, what God really likes and certainly has created us for. This link was sent to me by my daughter, who is the Cantor at this Covid mass at her Cathedral. Enjoy.

    1. “None is righteous, no, not one;
      no one understands; no one seeks for God.
      All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
      no one does good, not even one.”

      “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”

      “The venom of asps is under their lips.”

      “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

      “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
      in their paths are ruin and misery,
      and the way of peace they have not known.”

      “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

      -- Romans 3:10-18

  2. Not sure how this fits in. Hopefully it's not an allergic reaction to Catholicusm? Nevertheless whoever wrote that down did not know much about statistics it seems because it is way too much of an unjustified generalization. As far as righteousness is concerned we seem to move in different circles. I am surrounded by people who basically attempt to be righteous but, yes, are not perfectly so. At least I know they and I, and I assume you also, are trying. So, I for one will not throw out the baby with the bathwater and I can guarantee that God will not either (and especially so). These facts are not diminished by the obvious fact that sometimes it is necessary to call out a brood of vipers if indeed there is one.

    1. Perhaps it helps to distinguish between *absolute righteousness* and *relative righteousness*. What Paul is saying to the Romans, I think, is that by God's standards not one of us measures up. We all "sin and fall short of the glory of God". Relatively speaking, of course, one man can be more "righteous" than another. I think that's probably the sort of righteousness to which you are referring. But falling short of the glory of God leaves all men in need of a Savior.

      And no, not an allergic reaction to Catholicism...