Category Archives: Love of God

“How Can I Experience God As Real?” (The Highfield Letters #1)

Over the years I’ve received many letters asking my opinion on various issues or requesting my help with a troublesome concern. I take these inquiries as occasions not only to do something good for others but also to think about an issue of interest. I received a letter a few years back in which the correspondent asked this compound question: “Why does God seem so distant to me, and how can I experience God as real?” Perhaps you’ve also felt this absence and asked this question. I know I have. I was so happy to receive this note, because it gave me an occasion to think about my own experience. Here is the essence of what I wrote in response:

Dear God-Seeker:

God is not a physical object we can experience through the five senses. God is not merely a concept we can think in a clear and simple way. Nor is God an idea or image we can picture in our imaginations. How then can we experience God, if God is not like anything else we experience? Let’s not give up hope. God can be real and active without being real and active in the same way that other things are. I know you believe that God exists, creates, and takes care of us and our world. And because of Jesus, you believe that God loves the whole world and you. Hence you know that God is everywhere active and loving. But we don’t experience God’s omnipresent action in the way we experience the local acts of people and animals and the forces of nature. Why? Local acts stand out from their backgrounds and call attention to themselves, but God’s action—except in the case of miracles, which we are not discussing—touches everything at once. As the most universal agent, God’s actions are undetectable in the ways we notice other actions. So, we should not be surprised that we feel God’s absence from the array of our ordinary experiences. But we are not satisfied with this. Is there another way to experience God as really real?

We crave experience because experiencing gives us immediate certainty, which beliefs, thoughts, and ideas do not. To experience something is to be changed by that thing so as to become in some way like it. In our awareness of ourselves—in what we call our feelings—we also experience the other thing. I know you believe that God is active and loving. The idea of God is clear in your mind. What you want now is experience. Here is my opinion on how to attain what you seek: In this life, we can experience God best by becoming like God in his activity. God is present in our world in his loving, self-giving action. Hence when we join with God in loving what God loves in the way God loves it, we will experience God in action in us. We will experience ourselves as changed and formed by God’s loving action on us and through us. As in all experience, we receive an immediate certainty of the presence of the thing we are experiencing; we know that the changes in us don’t come from us alone.

And perhaps you have guessed already that I am speaking here of the action of the Holy Spirit, which is the cause of all human experience of God. As Paul promises, “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Notice also how John connects our confidence, our immediate certainty, with the action of the Spirit working in our actions of loving others in imitation of God’s love for us:

 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other…This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters…Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us (1 John 3:14-24).

By the witness of creation and Word we come to believe that God is real and that he loves us. And by the action of the Spirit we are prompted and empowered to respond to God’s love with our love. God’s love frees us to love him in return and to love what God loves in the way he loves it. In our acts of love we experience a taste of God’s own feelings of love for us and the world. What joy and certainty can be ours if only we will heed the Spirit’s prompting, follow Jesus’ example, and dive into the flow of God’s love.

I hope these thoughts help.

In Jesus,

Ron

 

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Politics, Sports, Entertainment, and Other False Religions

In this fourth installment of our series on “Love not the World” (1 John 2:15-17), I want to ask what John means by “loving the world” as opposed to loving the Father. In an earlier post, we saw that the “world” is the order of things prioritized to satisfy our self-centered desire for physical pleasure, possessions, and honor. John urges, “Don’t love this order, this kosmos.” “Don’t order your loves in this way.” As we see clearly, the organizing principle of “the world” is unenlightened love of the self, shaped and moved by our immediately felt physical desires and our psychological need for social acceptance—all informed and directed by the dominant culture in which we live.

In worldly society everyone desires, sells, promotes, seeks, and admires, physical pleasure, possessions, and honor above all other things. This way of thinking dominated the society and culture of John’s day. And it dominates ours also. Indeed, the “world,” as an order determined by the three perverted loves, manifests itself in every actual social and political order, in every human institution.

Politics, my friends, concerns the order of this world, and it arranges things to promote the realization of some vision of the good life within this world. And given the values of most people, politics invariably concerns competing visions of how to secure money, safety, possessions, pleasure, and honor. Do not love politics. Don’t become angry, anxious, or obsessed with it. Do not love the world in any of its manifestations. Do not love your sports team or famous people. Love the Father.

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).

John tells us not to “love” the world, either as a way of ordering our lives or as an actual social and political order. He uses the verb form of a Greek word familiar to many church-going people, agape. We should reserve our love for God. God loves us and sent his Son to save us from sin and death. The world does not love us. It cannot save us from sin and death, because the world itself is dominated by sin and death. We love God by returning our praise, thanks, and honor to him for what he has done for us. In loving God, we seek him as our highest good, treating all other goods as means to our ultimate goal of eternal life with God. God is the measure of all things. Nothing else really matters.

We love the world when we treat experiencing physical pleasure as the goal of our lives. Loving the world involves letting our desire for beautiful, convenient, and comfortable things eclipse our desire for God and the things of God. When we seek approval, praise, and honor from other people and do not strive to please God above all others, we have succumbed to the love of the world. Physical pleasure, cars, houses, and lands, and a good reputation are not evil in themselves. They can be means through which we can serve and praise God. The joy we experience in them can turn our hearts to God in thanksgiving. But if we seek them as if they could give us true joy apart from their function of pointing us to God, if we worship them, if we forsake the higher goods for the lower, then these things will turn to dust in our hands. There is only one God. Apart from God, there is only death.

It’s time for some self-examination. Do you love the world? Do I love the world? Let’s ask ourselves some questions:

 

How often do you think of God and pray?

 

When you pray, for what do you ask?

 

How much time do you spend trying to shape other people’s opinion of you? And how much does it bother you when you get less respect or recognition than you think you deserve?

 

How much of your attention is given to planning and experiencing pleasures of all kinds?

 

If you were responding to a survey that asked you rank the top five things you desired most, what would top your list? Second? Third?

 

How much effort do you give to exercising your spirit, in self-examination and confession?

 

What do you think about when you take a walk by yourself?

 

What are the highest priorities of your two best friends?

 

Would you prefer to look good or be good? Does your answer match the effort you put into each?

 

Whom do you most admire?

 

Is the “love of the Father” the organizing and animating force of your life?

In researching for a book I am writing, I’ve come upon some of Plato’s ethical thoughts. In the following quote from his dialogue Theaeteus, Plato sounds a lot like John in 1 John 2:15-17. Considering the high calling we receive from Jesus Christ, we ought at least to aim as high as Plato, who did not know the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, bids us aim:

But it is not possible, Theodorus, that evil should be destroyed—for there must always be something opposed to the good; nor is it possible that it should have its seat in heaven. But it must inevitably haunt human life, and prowl about this earth. That is why a man should make all haste to escape from earth to heaven; and escape means becoming as like God as possible; and a man becomes like God when he becomes just and pure, with understanding. But it is not at all an easy matter, my good friend, to persuade men that it is not for the reasons commonly alleged that one should try to escape from wickedness and pursue virtue. It is not in order to avoid a bad reputation and obtain a good one that virtue should be practiced and not vice; that, it seems to me, is only what men call ‘old wives’ talk’. Let us try to put the truth in this way. In God there is no sort of wrong whatsoever; he is supremely just, and the thing most like him is the man who has become as just as it lies in human nature to be…

My friend, there are two patterns set up in reality. One is divine and supremely happy; the other has nothing of God in it, and is the pattern of the deepest unhappiness. This truth the evildoer does not see; blinded by folly and utter lack of understanding, he fails to perceive that the effect of his unjust practices is to make him grow more and more like the one, and less and less like the other. For this he pays the penalty of living the life that corresponds to the pattern he is coming to resemble (Plato, Theaeteus, trans. M. J. Levett, rev. Myles Burnyeat in The Complete Works of Plato, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hacket, 1997), p. 195).

Must We Limit God’s Power to Solve the Problem of Evil?

 

Something Different

Today, I am doing something I don’t usually do in this blog. I am reviewing a book, a very provocative, sometimes infuriating, book. Let me explain why. Last October InterVarsity Press published my book, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety. A few weeks later InterVarsity Press published Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. These books could hardly be more opposed to each other. After some communication with Oord, he graciously invited me to join him on a panel with two other theologians that will meet at the annual meeting of the Christian Theological Research Fellowship in San Antonio, November, 2016. The theme of the discussion is the problem of evil. My presentation will bear the title, “Faith, Hope, And The Rhetoric Of Despair: Providence And Evil After Ivan Karamazov.” In preparing for this paper I read Oord’s latest book. And I thought I would share some thoughts on the book. I cannot summarize or respond to every argument in the book. But I hope to give you the heart of its central argument. I am sure you have heard these ideas even if you are not familiar with the books, authors, and labels.

Open and Relational Theology

Let me give you some background. Within the past 30 years, certain evangelical theologians have begun to advocate a view of God and providence called “open” or “relational” theism. I have written articles and sections of books explaining and criticizing this movement. John Sanders, Gregory Boyd, William Hasker, Clark Pinnock, Terence Fretheim are well known exponents of this view. Thomas Oord places himself broadly within this school of thought. But he also criticizes many of his fellow open and relational theologians for not following the basic logic of the position consistently to its end. In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Oord presents a modified open and relation view he calls the “essential kenosis” model of providence. Even if you know nothing of the general open and relational model, I think you can pick it up as I review Oord’s modified open and relational model of providence.

Oord’s Argument For a Limited God in Context

Oord’s argument in its simplest form contends that the problem of evil can be answered only by giving up the traditional doctrine of omnipotence. God’s power is not unlimited but limited. So, God cannot control all things. Hence God is not responsible or culpable for the horrendous evils that occur in the world. But Oord knows that this simple solution raises a host of questions for Christian believers, and he devotes most of the book to addressing them: How limited is God? Are God’s limits natural or self-imposed? What thing or things limit God? And does this limited God measure up to the God of Christianity?

First, let’s set the argument of Oord’s book into the larger context of argument from evil to atheism or some form of modified theism.

The General Philosophical Argument from Evil (Simple Version)

  1. An omnipotent God could prevent every instance of genuine evil
  2. A perfectly good God would want to prevent every instance of genuine evil.
  3. Genuine evil exists

Therefore:

  1. Either God is omnipotent but not good.
  2. Or, God is good but not omnipotent.
  3. Or, God is neither omnipotent nor good.
  4. Or, there is no God at all.

You can see clearly from the two arguments below how Oord’s overarching argument is driven by the general argument from evil:

Oord’s General Argument #1

  1. A God of love would want to prevent all genuine evil.
  2. Genuine evil occurs in the world.
  3. Hence, either there is no God of love or God cannot prevent all genuine evil.

Oord wishes to affirm the existence of a loving God, so he accepts the conclusion that “God cannot prevent all genuine evil.” But why can’t God prevent all evil? This question leads us to the next argument:

Oord’s General Argument #2

  1. If genuine randomness in physical processes and genuine creaturely freedom exists in the world, God cannot control everything that happens.
  2. Genuine creaturely freedom and randomness in physical processes exist in the world.
  3. Hence God cannot control everything that happens (including events that are genuinely evil).

In relation to the general philosophical argument from evil, we can see that Oord accepts conclusion #5 (God is good but not omnipotent) and rejects #4 (God is not good), #6 (God is neither omnipotent nor good, and #7 (There is no God).

Oord’s Critique of Other Open and Relational Thinkers

But now Oord faces a barrage of questions. It is not enough to say that God is loving but not omnipotent. One can imagine many loving but totally powerless beings. Why should we consider this loving but not omnipotent being “God”? Many thinkers who agree with Oord’s argument so far take this question very seriously and give this answer: God is not intrinsically, that is, by nature, limited. God limits himself. God freely decides to create a world where randomness and creaturely freedom exist. Once they exist, of course, God cannot determine the outcomes that randomness and freedom produce. But they do not exist by necessity. They exist only because God chose to create them. God was unlimited before creation but after creation God limits himself to give creation room to exercise freedom to love or hate, to choose good or evil. God chose to allow the possibility of genuine evil for the sake of the possible good. The ground of the possibility of good and evil is the same: creaturely randomness and freedom. But God never does evil or approves of evil. God does everything he can—other than reverse his decision to create creaturely freedom and randomness—to prevent genuine evil from occurring. In this way, these writers think they’ve preserved the deity of the loving but limited God…and solved the problem of evil.

Oord disagrees. He argues that the divine self-limitation theory does not do justice to the love of God. It makes God’s love for creatures a choice for God instead of the chief attribute of his nature. It implicitly makes God’s omnipotence the chief attribute because God could have chosen never to create and could yet reverse his decision if he wanted to do so. God could choose not to love, even if he never actually does so.

The Essential Kenosis Model of Providence

Oord offers an alternative to the divine self-limitation theory: “The Essential Kenosis Model of Providence.” According to Oord, if “God is love” in his essential being, he always loves and cannot refuse to love. God cannot contradict his essence. “God must give freedom and cannot override the gift given” (p. 171). God does not choose to limit himself. God is essentially self-giving, or self-emptying. Though he never explicitly says this, it seems to me that Oord thinks God creates the world by necessity, that creation is implicit in the inner nature of God. And if God creates by necessity, God has always been creating the world. I will pursue the consequences of this line thought in the next installments of this review.

Oord considers his model of providence superior to the models proposed by other open and relational thinkers (e.g. John Sanders) for two reasons. (1) The “essential kenosis” model possesses an inner coherence not present in the others. It makes love the master divine attribute in a radical and consistent way. Divine love judges and limits the exercise of all other divine attributes. (2) It really solves the problem of evil. In the “essential kenosis” model of providence, God cannot interfere with creaturely freedom and can never coerce creatures. God must create and give freedom to creatures. God has no choice. We know God does not desire or even allow evil because he does not even choose to create free creatures. God has no choice about this. They exist by necessity of the inner logic of divine love. Hence the problem of evil is solved. At no point is a divine decision involved actively or passively in the occurrence of evil or even in bringing about the conditions that make evil possible. Hence God cannot be blamed for genuine evil at any point in its genesis or history.

Next Time: I will offer some critical reflections on the fundamental presuppositions, central arguments, and implications of this book.

 

Finding True Love in a Me-Centered Culture

In the last post, I wrote about the nature and logic of hatred. Hatred is seething anger at perceived insults. And the logic of hatred is “you are like what you hate.” Jesus demands that we replace anger with kindness and hatred with love. In this post I want to ask about the nature and logic of love.

What is Love?

What is love, Christianly understood? Let’s begin by defining love in opposition to hatred. True love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. It’s so deep you could almost call it a “longing.” Hate is deep and habitual desire for harm to come on another in response to harm cause by the other. Notice that I have included the cause of hatred in its definition but I did not mention a cause for love in its definition. Hateful people hate those who insult them. In contrast, loving people love others whatever they do or say. Hence the “cause” of love does reside in the deeds and words of the loved one. Christianity teaches clearly that the “cause” of love is God’s love, which is made known in his action for us and in us. John summarizes the message of the entire New Testament when he says:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them…

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister (1 John 4:7-19).

John grounds our love for others in God’s eternal nature and in his loving act of sending his Son for our salvation. Our love for others is not merely a dutiful imitation of God’s love for others. John makes this interpretation impossible when he says, “God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (verse 12). That is to say, through Christ and the Spirit, God unites his loving heart with ours and changes us from the inside out. We not only act like God in our external acts but become like him in the depths of our being. We love because it is now our nature to love. Because “God is love” and we are united to God, we are in a derived sense love as well. What God is in his eternal nature, we become by grace. Resonating in harmony with God’s love, we love others for the same reason God’s loves others. In loving us, God bestows on us the supreme good, that is, himself. And in our love for others we desire for them that same supreme good, which is God. Allow me to quote again one of my favorite passages from Kierkegaard:

Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man,  that is, that God is the middle term…For to love God is to love oneself in truth; to help another human being to love God is to love another man; to be helped by another to love God is to be loved (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, pp. 112-113).

 

How Does Love Act?

How does love act? What does it do and what does it avoid doing? In Paul’s justly famous hymn about love in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, rather than attempting to define love as I have done, he describes how it acts:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

For most people, it is not enough to explain that true love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. Most people are not very clear about what the “supreme good” is or how a person who desires it for others would act in various situations. Paul lists 15 things love does or does not do. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but illustrative. We could add many more. In each case, the loving person seeks something good for others or avoids doing harm to others. We are a bit fuzzy at times about what is good and bad for others. Listing ways of doing good and harm in specific ways helps us get a feel for what love would do or not do in other situations.

Counterfeit Love

However, there is much confusion in contemporary culture about the nature of love, and there are many counterfeits. Love, in the Christian understanding of it, is grounded in truth, guided by wisdom, and aimed at good. Love, Paul asserts, “does not rejoice in evil but rejoices with the truth” (verse 6). Only a superficial love hides from the truth and reinforces another person’s ignorance and self-deception—or you own. Compassion that concerns itself only with how people feel and doesn’t bother itself with their true condition is cowardly and selfish, concerned with its own feelings more than with the genuine welfare of others. You do not love others truly when you rejoice with them in the harm they do to others or to themselves. True love knows that the supreme good for every person they meet is fellowship with God. Wisdom informed by Jesus’ example and teaching guides us to those goods and activities that further others on their journey toward God.

The Real Thing

Jesus Christ is the act and revelation of the love of God. He is the wisdom that teaches us how to love and power that moves us to love others in truth. In him, the supreme good and final end of human life is made known. I will say it again: True love is deep and habitual desire for the supreme good of another. And, in the Christian understanding of it, love is grounded in truth, guided by wisdom, and aimed at good.

A Message For Religious Drop Outs

Many people view religion as a distraction from real life. Religious acts are useless and religious institutions are a waste of human resources. Increasingly, younger people are dropping out of church attendance and adopting a private spirituality or becoming completely secular. What can we say to this movement? What is the meaning of Christian religious practice?

First, we need to observe that the idea that religion is useless and a distraction from real life presupposes a view of the divine and divine’s relationship to human beings that supports this view of religion. In ancient religion the gods demanded sacrifice and honor from human beings. They rewarded their favorites and punished offenders. Given this belief system, religious acts and institutions could hardly be called useless and distracting from real life! Modern religious drop outs of post-Christian, post-denominational culture no longer believe in God at all or no longer believe God desires the attention of human beings or some similar thought. In any case, they cannot see a rationale for traditional, Christian religious practice.

In the previous post, I defined religion as “human action and affection directed primarily toward God.” We examined the Christian understanding of basic human affection toward God, that is, love for God. When we come to see in the self-giving of Jesus Christ how much God loves us, we cannot help but love God in return. And when we see that God is the best, most beautiful, and truest reality, we cannot help but desire to be with God and enjoy him. As we can clearly see, loving the God revealed in Jesus Christ makes perfect sense. But what about religious acts: baptism, listening to the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and praise? What about meeting together to perform these acts? What makes these things meaningful and useful?

Christianity rejects the ancient pagan view of religion. Christian religious acts are not designed to meet God’s needs. The Old Testament prophets and Paul in Acts 17 make that clear. They are not designed earn God’s favor or ward off his wrath. What then is their purpose?

The meaning of any action is revealed in its relationship to the goal to which it is directed. Acts become meaningless when we cannot see the goal at which they aim. Everyone understands that the more important the goal, the more valuable the means that helps us achieve that goal. Christian religious acts are the means by which we can achieve the goals of the Christian faith. What are those goals and how do Christian religious acts help us attain them?

As we noted in the previous essay, Christian religious acts must express our love for God or they are worthless (1 Corinthians 12:1-3). They do nothing to achieve the goal of the Christian way. In loving God, we admire his beautiful, loving character revealed in the self-giving of Jesus and we desire to participate in his goodness, beauty, and truth. In general, we want to be like what we admire and to enjoy what we desire. In loving God, our affections are directed toward becoming like him and participating in his eternal life, in its goodness, beauty, and truth. Jesus Christ reveals the true character of God and the true goal of human life; and Christian religious acts make sense only as means to this goal.

In one-time act of baptism, we imitate physically the self-giving of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and publicly declare our intention to imitate and become like Jesus, whom we love. In our repeated act of sharing in the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of Jesus’ self-giving and we reaffirm our baptismal intention to be assimilated to Jesus’ sacrifice and his life.  In listening to the Scriptures, we open ourselves to God’s word of grace, guidance, and judgment for the purpose of becoming like him.

When we praise God, we express our admiration for God’s character and our desire to enjoy his perfection. In praising God, we keep before our minds and hearts the truth that God himself is the goal of all human action. To possess and be possessed by God is the greatest of all goods. In the practice of communal and private prayer, we keep our minds focused on the reality of God’s presence and the truth of his grace.

And in meeting together to perform these acts we give and receive the strength, love, friendship, help,  and kindness that the Spirit of God gives to each and all. The meeting itself is a means by which we are helped on our way toward the goal of becoming like God and enjoying him now and forever.

If the goal of human life to have as much pleasure, to gather as much wealth, to achieve as much professional success, or to garner as much fame as possible within this life, religious acts make no sense at all. They are useless and the institutions that support them are a waste of human resources. But if the goal of human life is to become like God in character and to enjoy his goodness, beauty, and truth forever, Christian religious acts are the most meaningful things we can do.

Religion of Love or Love of Religion?

We’ve been working our way through Christian doctrine for the last 9 months, examining Christian teachings about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, creation, providence, sin, salvation, the atonement, the church, baptism, the Trinity, and many more. A catechism (our theme for this year) usually treats doctrines about God and God’s acts first. Afterward, it considers the appropriate human response to divine truth. The human response to divine truth can be further divided into religion and morality.

Religion concerns human action and affection directed primarily toward God. God is the object of religious acts.

Morality focuses on human action and affection directed primarily toward other human beings. Other people are the objects of moral acts.

Note: Theology is disciplined thought about God whereas religion is practical action directed to God. Ethics is disciplined thought about human moral action.

Christianity distinguishes these two kinds of human acts but does not separate them. It embraces them along with all other Christian teachings within our overall relationship to God. Jesus considered the duty to love God the most basic human responsibility and the obligation to love our neighbors as second in priority (Matthew 22:34-40). The character of our relationship to others is determined by our relationship to God. And the quality of our relationship to God is revealed by the way we treat others (1 John 4:7-21). Held in their proper relationship there can never be a contradiction between loving God and loving others, between being religious and being moral. The need to fulfill a religious duty can never excuse evil acts or enmity toward another human being. Nor should we neglect the love of God in the name of helping other people. Morality must not be reduced to religion or religion reduced to morality.

The Christian’s Religion

As we move into the practical teachings of our “catechism,” let’s first consider religion, that is, our acts and affections in relation to God. Today I want us to think about what it means to love God. It’s already clear in the Old Testament and it’s central to Jesus’ teaching that right outward actions, whether religious or moral, must be motivated by proper affections. Jesus cited the duties of loving God and neighbor as “the greatest” commandments. They are the “greatest” because they concern the root and foundation of all human action, the heart or the inner person or the will that determines the true worth of all our outward acts. However praiseworthy or helpful our religious and moral acts may seem to be from an external point of view, they are worthless before God if not motivated by love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

What does it mean to love God? As far as I can tell there are two basic Christian models: (1) profound gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and (2) passionate desire to experience and enjoy God as the highest good. Most often, New Testament writers follow Model (1) and ground our motivation for loving God in God’s demonstration of his love for us in Jesus’ sacrifice. Paul emphasizes God’s love for us more than he does our love for God. He exercises caution about professing the purity of his love for God. That’s a matter for God to judge. But he is deeply moved by God’s love for sinners, enemies, and the godless (Romans 5:1-11). We are full of hope because “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (verse 5). Nevertheless, he is clear that our fitting response to God’s love for us is our love for God (Romans 8:28, 1 Corinthians 2:9 and 8:3).

John, in 1 John 4:9-19, grounds our ability and motivation to love God and others in God’s love for us:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins…. 19 We love because he first loved us.”

According to model (1), then, to love God is to experience the unexpected, undeserved, and unfathomable love of God for us in the self-giving of Jesus Christ and to feel an overwhelming desire to give in return our whole being in service to God. I say “desire” but perhaps Paul’s expression “compulsion” is a better word:

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died (2 Corinthians 5:14).

If you’ve seen what Paul saw you know something of what he felt.

Model (2)—the love of God as “the passionate desire to experience and enjoy God as the highest good”—is a subordinate but still important theme in the Bible. God is the Source of every good gift. He is beautiful, praiseworthy, great, glorious, and perfect. If each of God’s gifts are “good” and all of them together are “very good” (Genesis 1), the Giver must be surpassingly good. However, the love of God as desire for the highest good became prominent only in the patristic era under the influence of Platonic thought. Perhaps the most famous expression of the love of God as desire is Augustine’s Confessions, especially that often quoted line in the first paragraph:

“Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Every healthy, enjoyable, beautiful, truthful, and excellent thing in creation possesses those qualities because it participates in the highest of all goods, eternal perfection itself. Created goods were not designed to satisfy us completely. Their goodness evokes desire but their imperfections disappoint and drive us higher, beyond all creatures to the perfect Good from which all things flow.

According to model (2), then, to love God is to have experienced the amazing goodness and beauty of creation as a mere foretaste of the infinite perfection of God and to be set ablaze with desire to see and experience directly that divine perfection.

I think we can see that within a Christian framework these two models are perfectly compatible. Model (1) focuses on the generous, merciful, and kind acts of God in creation and salvation. In these acts we experience the undeserved love of God and are compelled to love God in return. In Model (2), we also experience the goodness of God in creation, but the emphasis falls on the perfection of God’s being rather than on the loving character of his actions. In Model (1) we experience the kindness and in Model (2) we experience the excellence of God. Model (1) is Model (2) articulated in personal terms. Apart from the biblical revelation, we might think of God’s perfection in impersonal terms, that is, as a distant ideal or an unattainable state. But in Jesus Christ we see the perfect being of Model (2) turn toward us and freely invite us weak and sinful creatures to share in his perfect life. Profound gratitude is combined with passionate desire in a perfect union!