Six years ago, while I was still a university student in Sydney, I asked my pastor this question:
“Does God really love ME? Or does he love the Christian version of me?”
The question hardly does justice to the much more complicated argument that I had within myself. The confusion goes thus:
“If God hates me for my sin (which is deeply intertwined with who I am), then He has to love me for who I am NOT. But God loved the world, He loved sinners, so He loves me while I am still in sin. So God loves me because He chooses to. Before His choosing, He did not love me… After His choosing He loves me. There was nothing compelling God to love me the way we “fall in love” with the opposite sex, it is just a “stoic and unconditional” love – something that I would associate a cold person with. But is God like that? God couldn’t be like that can He? Why did Jesus weep for Jerusalem? Crying doesn’t gel with being cold. Then again, if God knows everything and isn’t bounded by time, surely He cannot be happy or sad in a chronological manner the way a human would be, i.e. sad today and happy tomorrow. Does He then feel a constant net effect of the sum of all happiness and sadness in His state of timelessness?”
As I found it harder and harder to reconcile the image of a stoic God (to be philosophically consistent) and an emotive God (to be theologically consistent) - being convinced that arguments for both comes from the Bible all the same, I resolved to be theologically consistent on paper. However, the thought that God is a stoic God remained my conviction to a large extent. After all, how could an all-powerful God be ever emotionally moved by things much smaller than Him? Not just smaller, but things that He created – emphasis being ‘created things’. I can imagine one person loving another person, but surely that person has to love a piece of Lego (a thing) with a love of lower quality than that of another person.
Well, at the end of the day, the reason I asked my pastor that question was probably not as philosophical as it sounded. Somewhere deep inside, I was like a girl asking her boyfriend “Am I special to you?”.
Somewhere, deep inside, I wanted to feel that God’s love for me wasn’t a mass produced generic commodity. It was hard to not feel that way, I am one out of the many millions saved by God. Surely a boyfriend who loves his girlfriend with the love that he has for a million girls mean nothing special to that girlfriend, so how can God’s Love be special?
Some will say “God knows how many hairs you have on your head”, to which I would gladly reply “So does He about the sparrows that He permits to fall dead, and I’m sure God’s omniscience extend to the number of hairs on the head of some guy burning in hell”. There was just no reason for me to believe that God could be loving anyone in a special way – whatever “special” means.
I have imagined God to be thus for the larger part of my Christian life. Before that, I consider myself to have believed in a God who loved me in a special way – purely out of a false and inflated sense of self-importance.
But why am I writing about this experience which happened six years ago?
Well, my girlfriend has been asking me a series of questions. I might be wrong, but I think the essence of the question is this:
“Joel, do you love me in a special way like you love no other girls?”
The answer which would cause least trouble is probably “Yes” followed with some praises about her virtue. She probably isn’t asking me about whether she has some unique qualities which only she has and that no other girl have.
The problem is that I add additional bits to my answer which completely ruins the moment. Forget my actual reply and consider for a while my thoughts:
“Yes, I do love her. But that is because I choose to love her. If I were born in a different time and met a different girl, I might have chosen to love another girl. Do I love her ultimately because I am attracted to her? (attraction being the sum of some weighted qualities such as physical attraction, intelligence, personality, character, etc) That might be true for now – but in the future, there is no guarantee that she will be the most attractive woman – there must exist someone better. Otherwise, all boyfriends who tell their girlfriends that she is the ‘best’ must be lying. So, back to the question, “Do I love her in a special way like I love no other girls?” Yes, because of a commitment I make in being her boyfriend. And one day when she turns old and haggard and I am no longer naturally attracted to her, I will love her because of a commitment that I made”
No prizes for guessing that speaking out my thoughts won me no favourable reply.
Why did I answer that? Because I thought that there was a more important question for Christians. Therein lies much of the accusation that I have little love for people. Sometimes, people just need to hear words that affirm our love for them. Why am I replying all these philosophical problems? Do I have no love for them that I consider the sport of toying with theological ideas of greater importance that affirmation of love for them?
Firstly, I am thinking about the question and giving that particular reply out of a concern which they probably are not aware of yet (and probably never will, or perhaps they will just believe that God loves them in a special way without struggling through the philosophical contradiction that may arise).
Secondly, to summarize what I say as “Joel has no love” is actually quite hurtful.
Thirdly, it isn’t sport and I am not toying with the idea.
Fourthly, whatever question that was posed to me would probably fade in insignificance when you consider how weighty the philosophical-theological question is.
In any case, accusations above come from non-girlfriends. I would suppose that any girlfriend would already be pre-occupied with the fact that I didn’t give a straight answer.
Such is the tip of the iceberg of pastoral care: there is a practical aspect as well as the theological and philosophical aspect. The next problem lies in my belief that there is a way to tie everything together nicely in one breath. This problem is further magnified in the fact that I cannot execute nor explain what I belief to be true because I am just incompetent at this point. Taking into account my incompetence, how do I resolve the pastoral concern (the question my girlfriend posed to me)?
I do not know how to resolve this. Mind = blank. So let me just think about theological matters as I fail to give a straight answer to my girlfriend who is being overtaken with emotions as I entertain my curiosity about the theological question. After all, I really don’t know how to answer, and “I don’t know” is a really bad answer for the question she is asking me. Now my mind wanders off thinking, “How are we to understand a boyfriend-girlfriend or even a husband-wife love?” Sure, “as Christ loves the church”, but does that mean simply sacrificial love? Of course, in my mind, since we are sinful, sacrificial love is probably the right and dutiful thing to do. I subscribe to that but people don’t like to think of love that way – they like to think of love as something intrinsic about themselves and not just a weighted average of their virtues and vices.
This is damn complicated and I don’t believe I am making it up.
So, now that I have set up the problem, let me share with you what I think I am understanding about God’s love. Whatever you see below is a simplified version of my thought process – you are looking at the “Show final without markup” version of things. Here goes:
I think that God hates us as sinners but still loves us intrinsically because we were “made in the image of God” and that “God breathed into us”. By that, I mean that God has put something “of Him” in us. However, I do not imply the Hindu understanding about how the universe and human beings being an ‘extension’ of God and thereby everyone being a part of God. Part of the answer to why God loves us is simply because there is something “of Him” that He has in us.
This is reflected in Adam’s poem for his wife. In praising her (I assume), he said “Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones”. Eve was made from Adam. When Adam sees her, there is something about him that is in her.
Am I going too far to say that Eve was “made in the image of Adam”? Maybe a little. I have to account for the fact that the female is also made in the image for God. So at least I can say this, the woman is made in the image of God as well as of the man.
Therein lies the mystery of this love: in God loving us or even in Adam loving Eve, it syncs with Ephesians 5:28-32.
In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
The mystery is not just that Adam and Eve is about Christ and the Church, but also the love and union.
I must say more about this love and union.
God the Father is God. God the Son is both God and Man. But Man is only man. In our union with Christ, there is more than just legal justification. In fact, legal justification is the product of an ontological transformation in humanity.
In our union with Christ, the Spirit dwells in us.
We are now not only made in the image of God, but will conform to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). The breath that Adam received, we received more, we have the Spirit of God. The fact that it matches further confirms the nature of the mystery and delights the engineer in me.
But I want to say more about love: What does God see when He looks at us?
that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me
When God sees me, not only He sees me, but He sees “His own flesh” so to speak. Not that God has flesh of course – but rather God doesn’t see me apart from my union with Him. Would it be wrong to say “God loves me”? Probably not, since for him who is united to Christ, “me” is no longer defined as an individual apart from God.
Back to the question I asked my pastor: “Does God love me for me? Or does He love the Christian version of me”. Well, this might be my reply
“As a non-Christian, God loves you for you because of the little left of His image that you bear (so that ‘you’ are not ultimately defined as an individual apart from Him), but largely hates you for the sin that you are in. And in line with His love for Himself (since God cannot be ultimately an idolater by considering us as the ultimate object of His love), He loves us and sent His Son to die for us. As a Christian, you now bear His image in a fuller sense (since you will ultimately confirm to the image of Christ), God loves you for you (with you being defined as united with Him in every way as written in John 17:21-23).
Is God’s love cheapened because there are millions of Christians? No, unless you imply that God’s love for Himself is cheapened in any way.
Are we special because we are who we are? That is an irrelevant question, we are united with Christ, we cannot just define ourselves with just “we”. It would probably be important to say that I don’t mean that creation becomes the Creator in case someone calls me a heretic, but I’m not sure how to define how closely we are united with Christ any more than how closely united Christ’s manhood and Godhood is.
Back to the girlfriend question, “Do I love her in a special way which I do not love another girl with?” The answer is “Yes, in a reasonably deep way. She has shared her life with me for the past few years. Who she is as a person now has been shaped by who I am as her boyfriend. Who I am has been shaped by who she is. While our one-flesh-ness is not ontological like that of the Christian’s union with Christ, I do love you like I love myself. Is there a girl with better qualities out there? Objectively, there probably will be, but she isn’t quite “us” the way we are. Will I always think of you as the best-est girl? Well, if we continue into marriage for the next few decades, you will be the me-iest girl, and I will love you like I love myself (without the connotation of being selfish).
Well, I didn’t want to end this article on just a girl-boy relationship note and I doubt whatever I said will really calm her down and I’m not sure what to say.
I just hope that whatever I shared about the nature of God’s love for us will give us a clearer picture of God’s Love – how it is special, not idolatrous of God, how union with Christ not only saves us but also justifies God’s genuine love for us so that we may be confident in God’s love. Much more could be said about Christians' love for one another as members of the body of Christ, but that is a whole other topic for another day.
There are a bunch of other questions which I think about, which, by placing it at the end of this article, makes it one with a bad ending.
So here's the bad ending, about Sarah and Abraham – Abraham lied to Pharaoh and pimped Sarah out. Sarah obeyed and was commended by Peter for submission. That is some crazy stuff going on there. I mean, we could always ask the ethical question as to whether what Sarah did was right or wrong – to which it is actually quite difficult to say as “wrong” if Peter commended her. Then again, she was an accomplice in lying to Pharaoh.
But if we ask whether her submission was her ultimate sacrifice to save Abraham’s life – the one who is “one-flesh” with her, I think nobody could ask for a better wife. Abraham was the one who needs to bear all the blame for failing to offer up his life for her. In this respect, Sarah was more noble than Abraham.
I'm not entirely confident of my exegesis on this passage. Maybe one day I will find a better explanation for Peter commending Sarah, something that sounds more exegetically tight, then I will revise my position. But this is how I’m reading Peter for now.