Tag Archives: divine love

Are Darkness and Evil Rooted in God’s Nature?

 

This is the third and final installment of my review and critique of Thomas Oord’s book The Uncontrolling Love of God. In the previous two essays I described and analyzed Oord’s argument and criticized three of his crucial assertions. Today I will address a fourth assertion.

4. God’s Nature Limits God.

For Oord, the problem of evil focuses on absolving God of responsibility for the evil that plagues our world. Oord argues that the problem of evil cannot be dealt with as long as we view creation as a voluntary divine act. If God voluntarily created our world then God either allows or positively wills the evil that occurs within it. And no being that allows or permits, much less positively wills, the horrible evils that happen in our world can be considered loving. Oord “solves” the problem of evil by concluding that God did not choose to create a world with randomness and freedom, which are the necessary conditions for evil. Because God is love by nature, God creates our world by necessity.

Oord contends not only that God is love by nature but also that love is the preeminent divine attribute and limits the other attributes. God’s power extends only as far as his love. God cannot act contrary to his loving essence and must express that essence by creating. Let’s listen to some of Oord’s claims:

“God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control” (p.146).

“By contrast [to John Sanders], I do think God’s nature dictates the sort of world God must make” (p.148).

“God’s love is uncontrollable, not only in the sense that creatures cannot control divine love but also in the sense that God cannot stop loving” (p. 161).

“Essential kenosis says limitations to divine power derive from God’s nature of love” (p.164).

“Essential kenosis says God’s self-giving, others-empowering nature of love necessarily provides freedom, agency, self-organization and lawlike regularity to creation. Because love is the preeminent and necessary attribute in God’s nature, God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom , agency, self-organizing and lawlike regularity God gives. Divine love limits divine power” (p. 169).

Is God a Prisoner of His Nature?

For many readers, the familiar idea that God cannot contradict his nature seems correct. God cannot lie or sin or die. We could add that God cannot act in an unloving or unjust way. I too agree with these statements. But Oord goes further.  He contends that God’s nature limits God, which in effect makes God a prisoner of his nature. The traditional teaching that God cannot contradict his nature was never understood as “limiting” God, that is to say, depriving God of an option that God might otherwise have willed to use for some good purpose. On the contrary, the idea that God cannot die or sin or act unlovingly expresses God’s unlimited perfection! It would be silly to say that there is something good or great in dying or sinning that God is missing because he cannot do it. Dying is not something you. It is something that happens to you. Nothing just happens to God!

But Oord insists that “Divine love limits divine power”? In the traditional doctrine of God, God’s power is thought to be unlimited, which means that God’s power extends to everything that is logically possible. Oord adds a further qualification by excluding some logically possible things. Specifically, Oord wants to exclude God using power to control or coerce his creatures. These actions are, according to Oord, logically possible, but given the priority of divine love in the divine nature, are impossible for God. It is logically possible for God to prevent evil actions but impossible for God actually to do this. God cannot act contrary to his loving nature, and his loving nature demands that he give irrevocable randomness and freedom to creatures.

Darkness and Evil Within the Divine Nature?

Our suspicions are rightly raised when we hear a thinker using one divine attribute to limit the others. Oord speaks as if God were essentially love but not essentially power or eternity or justice or others. It seems to me that we ought to reject out of hand the attribution of incoherence and disharmony to the divine being. Instead we ought to allow all the divine attributes modify and enrich each other. If we believe God is perfect in every respect, we should also assume that there is no tension much less conflict between divine love and divine justice or power or eternity or omniscience. God’s love is just and his justice is loving. And God’s love is powerful and his power is loving.

Oord, to the contrary, defines God’s love independently of the other essential attributes and seems to base his definition of divine love on a human conception of love. He then uses this human conception to restrict divine power. Consequently his conception of divine power is likewise distorted. Oord seems to think of divine power as force and coercion, which must be limited by divine love. Divine power is obviously conceived as the possibility for evil as well as good. Amazingly, this move grounds the tension in creation between love and evil in a tension within the divine being. Hence to escape rooting evil in the divine will Oord places its possibility in the divine nature! The problem of evil has infected the divine being. And God must continually overcome his possibility for evil. Evil has been eternalized.

But divine power is not the possibility for good or evil, love or coercion. Divine power is the power of being; it is unambiguously good. God is the power of his own being and consequently the power for the being of creatures. God’s power always manifests itself in creation as giving being. There is no reason to see any tension between God’s power and his love. Every act of love is also an act of power. God loves by giving being in all its richness to creatures.

Conclusion

In sum, Oord solves one problem of evil only to create an even worse one. He succeeds in absolving God of any responsibility for evil by transferring the possibility for evil from the divine will to the divine nature. However, the price of this transfer may be greater than many are willing to pay. If the suffering we endure in this world is somehow rooted in the unfathomable divine will and purpose, we can still hope that evil will be overcome and “every tear will be dried.” But if evil is rooted in the eternal divine nature, God has no place to stand to pull us out of the pit. How can he sympathize with our pain when he is distracted by his own suffering? How can God “lead us not into temptation” when he must continually overcome his own temptation?

Coming Soon: Eschatology. What can we know about something that hasn’t happened yet?

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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.

 

What is Divine Forgiveness?

In the previous post I asked you to consider the question, “What is so bad about sin that we should want to be saved from it?” And the answer that forced itself upon us was that the nature of sin is “absurdity, death, emptiness, wretchedness, isolation, despair, and destruction.” Only when we understand sin’s destructive effects on us does the gospel of Jesus Christ become good news to us. The gospel tells us that Jesus Christ came to rescue us from these ills, restore our health, and lead us to a destiny glorious beyond our imagining. What must Jesus do in order to save us?

Forgiveness

For most believers, the first idea that comes to mind in answer to this question is forgiveness. We need forgiveness for our sins, and Jesus secures divine forgiveness for us. So let’s think about forgiveness. Forgiveness makes sense only in a personal context. Sin causes damage to us and to others. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the interesting question of whether we need forgiveness from ourselves for the damage we cause to ourselves and focus on the damage we cause to other people.) Some damage we cause to other people is reparable and some is not. If you steal my cash, you could correct that harm by repaying the money. However, if you take my life or cause permanent bodily harm, you cannot repair the damage and restore the body to its original condition. But whether the physical damage is reparable or irreparable, great or small, there is another kind of damage that accompanies all sins against other people: insult or offense. Sin against others treats them as having less than human dignity. You put the disturbing thought into their minds that they are unworthy–unworthy of life, possessions, or respect. Of all the possessions a person has, a sense of their own worth is the most precious. If I do not feel that I am worthy of love and respect, I will be afraid of everyone in every situation. I will trust no one. Life becomes a burden.

The instinctive reaction to insult is anger, hatred, and desire for revenge. In revenge, people assert their dignity by attempting to balance harm with harm and insult with insult. Revenge releases anger and provides a momentary sense of relief. It is an effort to restore our damaged sense of worth, to assert and reestablish our dignity. Of course, revenge doesn’t really work to restore confidence in our dignity, because our desire for revenge shows that we never had confidence in our worth! If we had such confidence, the original insult would not have caused us to hate and desire revenge so intensely in the first place.

Now we are prepared to understand the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is refusal to take revenge for insults against us. Where do we find the power to forgive, and why should we forgive those who insult us? Forgiveness is withholding revenge, but this forbearance arises from a deeper source. The forgiving person has the spiritual power to neutralize, absorb, or be immune to insult. The insult does not shake their confidence in their own worth. Hence it does not cause fear, evoke hatred, and provoke violence. But the forgiving person is not only unshakably confident of their own value, they are also unclouded in their perception of their enemy’s dignity. Even while being insulted, they are compassionately aware of their enemy’s lack of clarity about her or his own worth. When you forgive your enemy, unlike when you take revenge on your enemy, you are witnessing to your enemy’s worth as well as your own in a dramatic way. If your enemies can receive your forgiveness, they may also come to perceive their true dignity. Only forgiveness can “balance” the books on the worth of individuals. Only forgiveness can convert an enemy.

Divine Forgiveness

Divine forgiveness follows the same logic as outlined above. When God forgives, God refrains from taking revenge. Divine forgiveness deals with the personal offense and insult sin directs at God. We cannot damage God physically as we can God’s creatures. But when we damage, insult, and withhold love from human beings, we also disbelieve, disobey, and mistrust God. We refuse his love and reject his guidance. We insult God’s dignity indirectly. (Blasphemy is direct insult of God.) God deserves our faith, obedience, and love, but when we sin against his beloved creatures, we display our ingratitude and disrespect. But God does not take revenge. God absorbs and neutralizes the insult, not returning violence for violence. God does not allow our refusal to love him to cause him to stop loving us. Our insults cannot place in God doubt of his divine dignity or lessen his love. Instead, God demonstrates his unchallenged dignity and eternal love by forgiving us. God affirms our worth by maintaining his eternal love for us unchanged

Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ action of forgiving his enemies is the expression in time of God’s eternal love and forgiveness. Let’s get clear on this: the work of Jesus Christ was not designed to change an offended and revenging God into a loving and forgiving God. Jesus’ suffering is not the cause of divine forgiveness. No. Jesus Christ is the visible, temporal enactment of divine forgiveness, of God’s eternal selfless love for us. Jesus is “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev 13:8).

In Jesus Christ, God absorbs and negates human offense and insult. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s sheer, gracious, unexpected, and incomprehensible forgiveness of insult to his divine dignity! In the humanity of Jesus Christ, God became able to suffer and die for us. Jesus’ human love for his Father in time corresponds to his divine love for the Father in eternity and his human suffering and death for us in time corresponds to God’s love and forgiveness for us in eternity. In the suffering and dying of Jesus Christ, divine forgiveness becomes effective for the conversion and salvation of humanity. In Jesus, God’s refusal to take revenge (forgiveness) becomes the negative side of a positive act of rescue from the power of sin and death.

Next Time: Forgiveness is not enough. We need healing, purification, transformation and glorification.

 

No Love, No Justice! On the Difference Between God’s Justice and Ours

Before I launch into the topic of divine love and justice, I need to clarify something about my essay of November 17, 2015. Several people took issue with it as somewhat overwrought. Okay, perhaps the title of that essay (“God’s Merciless Love, Or Why God Does Not Love Us As (Isolated) Individuals”) was a bit over the top. Of course God knows and loves individuals, every one of them! But how do you really love an individual person in the right way? That is an important question. First, you love them for what they really are, and we really are connected and interrelated with nature and other people. These relationships constitute our unique identity. We would not and could not exist without them. Hence in loving individuals God loves them along with everything that makes them who they are. Second, to love individuals means to will for them and give them what is truly good. Since God loves all people and everyone is interconnected with nature and the whole human family, what is truly good for one individual cannot be separated from what is truly good for all. I think if we keep these thoughts in mind and let them sink into our hearts, we will become less self-centered in our understanding of what is good for us.

How do we know that God’s loves us?

How do we know that God is love, that God loves you and me, that God loves the world? How do we know that God is good, that God wills the highest good for you and me and the whole world? This belief is not self-evident.  As I said in the previous essay on God’s love, there have been many views of the divine that make no place for divine love. But for Christians, Jesus Christ is the revelation and proof that God loves us. Allow me to quote a few of the many New Testament statements asserting this:

 7Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7-11).

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. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:5-8).

20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

How does what Jesus did show that the eternal God loves us? Ordinarily we show our love by what we do, and the depth of that love is demonstrated by how much we are willing to give up for the one we say we love. John says God’s love is demonstrated by giving his Son for us. In Romans 5:8, Paul says that God “demonstrates his love” in that “Christ died for us.” And in Galatians 2:20, it is Christ who loves and gave himself for us. Clearly, Paul, John and the other NT writers see in Christ’s act of love God’s own act of love. Christ is the self-giving of God for us.

God’s act of love in Jesus is so central to the being of God that, according to John, “God is love.”  The radical act of God’s love demonstrated in the self-sacrifice of Christ could have come only from the depths of God’s heart; God holds nothing back. He gives all. Jesus Christ reveals the motive for everything God does. The love of God is rooted so deep in God’s character that it permeates and conditions God’s whole being and every act. God’s being is an act of love through and through. Hence God is love.

Divine Justice?

Where then is God’s justice? If in love God gives himself to us without regard to merit or demerit, is God unjust in his overflowing love? In the classical definition, human justice is established where “each gets what is due him.” Of course, in different societies the rules that determine “what is due” differ, so social goods will be distributed differently in different societies. And even within societies disputes arise about exactly what is due to individuals and why. In every case, however, what is just is determined by the individual’s merit or demerit as measured by the law. But God loved us and Christ died for us “while were sinners” and “ungodly.” How is that an act of justice?

Just as we should not apply the human concept of love directly to God, we should not apply the human concept of justice to God without proper modification. As I said above, human justice distributes goods according to merit and demerit as measured by a set of rules or law. Just laws embody the principle of justice that says, “each according to his due.” Just acts follow those rules. A just person lives by those rules with all sincerity. Clearly the question of justice is the question of the fitting relationship between two things: between a law and the principle of proper merit or between a rule and a behavior that expresses that rule. One serves as the standard for the other.

Divine justice also involves the relationship between a standard of measure and behaviors. But in God’s case, the standard of measure must be God’s own being, life, and character, for there can be no law above God. Hence God acts justly by acting consistently with his being, life, and character. God’s justice is his faithfulness to himself. In Jesus Christ, God demonstrated that his love penetrates to the depth of his being, life and character. Hence God acts justly precisely by loving us while we were sinners! In loving us despite our sin, even “while were enemies” God is being completely faithful to himself.

God does not give us “what is due” us! A creature can never rightly assert a claim on God; everything we have, even our existence itself, is a gift from God. But what if we are “due” punishment? An act “deserves” its consequences, that is, given the natural course of things certain consequences follow on every act and are implicit in it. In our acts of sin we assert our wills against God’s will. That is the essence of sin. But God wills only to love us, to be our God, our helper, and our good. In sin we wish to be our own god, helper, and good. But apart from God we cannot live or enjoy any good. Hence death is implicit in sin. In the words of Paul, “the wages [natural consequences] of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

The human call for justice (or “social justice” as it is now called) is often a thoughtless a cry for “what we are due.” Thankfully, God does not give us “what is due” us! And precisely by not giving us what is due to us God proves himself perfectly just. In giving himself for us in Jesus Christ, God is completely faithful to himself. God gives himself what is due to himself. And contrary to “what is due” to us, we receive mercy, forgiveness, grace, and love. Instead of death we get life and a new beginning. What justice! What love! What joy! What gospel!

 

God’s Merciless Love, Or Why God Does Not Love Us As (Isolated) Individuals

 

“I believe in a loving God.”

“God loves you.”

“God is love” (1 John 4:8).

“For God so loved the world….” (John 3:16).

We hear these words so often that we become hardened to their significance. They no longer strike us as surprising and profound. Voltaire is reported to have said, “God forgives because it’s his business.” We may also grow to take God’s love, mercy, and grace for granted. Or just as bad, we may think we understand God’s love when we have only the most superficial grasp.

We have heard that love is a divine attribute and a divine action. Good. But what does that mean, and how do we know? In fact, it is not at all clear that the concept of God necessarily entails that God loves. The followers of Plato considered the highest reality to be absolutely perfect and self-sufficient. God is “Goodness” itself, but this does not mean that God is actually good to anyone. It means that God is the most perfect object of desire. For Aristotle, God thinks only of the highest reality, that is, his own being. God is “self-thinking Thought.” All beings desire God because they desire perfection, but God desires nothing and takes no thought for the world. In ancient polytheism, a particular god may favor a particular human being, but the conviction that “God is love” seems never to have entered the human imagination before Jesus Christ came into the world. The Old Testament asserts that the one God of Israel alone is God. And God loves Israel and favors some people, such as Abraham and David, above others. Still, the Old Testament does not clearly teach the radical love of God the way it is taught in the New Testament.

Unless we give serious thought to the New Testament teaching on divine love we tend to think of God’s love in too close analogy to human love. Let’s think about the differences. (1) God’s love is not an emotion in the way we experience emotion. Our emotions are moved by the characteristics or situation of object toward which we act. God’s love is God own being and is always active, constant, and perfect. God always loves in every act because God is love. And God does what God is. (2) That God loves means that God wills the perfect good for himself and his creation. Indeed, God himself is the perfect good that he wills for himself and creation. Hence the aim of God’s love is to give himself to the object of his love. When we love, we also will something good for the object of our love. But our love is not guided by perfect understanding of what the highest good is for the person we love. Nor do we know the perfect means of attaining that good or have the power to give that good to others. Our love can be blinded by our short-sighted desires or by the momentary feelings of the one we love. But God knows the highest good for everyone and the perfect way of attaining it for each; and God will not be distracted from that aim by his needs or by our misguided desires. The Christian teaching that God is love and loves us does not imply that God will “go soft” on us. God is not indulgent; nor does he exercise a false compassion that concerns itself only with relief of immediate distress but neglects our highest good. As Augustine says in his Confessions, God exercises a “severe mercy” in bringing us to him, our highest good. We could also speak of it as a “merciless love.”

(3) God does not love us as individuals, that is, as isolated individuals. Shocking? Perhaps so, but the reason we are shocked by this is that God’s love is often sentimentalized, sweetened, and personalized to meet our own preferences. God wills, as I said above, our highest good. But we cannot attain our highest good as isolated individuals. We exist in relation to God primarily, and secondarily we depend on the whole creation and other human beings for our lives and personal identities. And we can experience the highest good [perfect fellowship with God] only in fellowship with the whole creation. Each of us plays a part in God’s story with the world. Some of those parts are short, some long, some painful, some mostly happy, some relative easy, and some very hard. From within life and from the perspective of the individual, life does not seem fair and God seems to love some more than others. But from the perspective of the end and the whole history of creation, God loves each person perfectly—and equally. God loves the whole world in each person, that is, God blesses the whole world by using each individual to bring something to the whole that makes it complete. And God loves each person by loving the whole world, that is, each individual will experience the good God makes of the whole. And in the end, all converge and each gets what has been given to all.

To be continued…

As you may have noticed, I asserted the thoughts in this essay without much proof. If you are interested in hearing more evidence for them, see my book, Great is the Lord, pp. 164-221.

Am I Really Worth It? God and the Modern Self #15

How much are human beings worth and why? In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant answered that basis of human dignity (or worth) resides in the mysterious core of our being where we create ourselves by ourselves. Other answers have been given: our dignity lies in our rational nature, which excels all other creatures. Or, our worth must result from achieving moral excellence, military glory, or some other accomplishment that marks us for distinction. Recently, the answer has become that I deserve respect from others simply because I want it, assert it and demand it. But even as I assert my dignity, I could still ask in my heart, “Am I really worth it?”

There is something unsatisfying about these answers. I may wish for the mysterious power of self-determination and self-creation that Kant postulates but I can’t conceive it clearly or feel it intensely. But my inherited characteristics, my limits and my unworthy qualities press in on me from a much closer range. If I attempt to feel my worth by contrasting my intelligence with unreasoning creatures or counting my accomplishments, I could achieve only a relative worth. Others possess greater intelligence and have achieved greater glory. And even if I managed to convince myself that I am greater than all other creatures, I would know in my heart that my worth is still limited. I could imagine being greater and better than I am. In that knowledge, I could still feel unworthy and unhappy. And I can’t help but notice that asserting my worth and demanding respect, though it expresses my desire for worth and respect, does not make them real. Shouting at the world does not change it. I could still ask, “Am I really worth it?”

When asked about the basis of human dignity Christians usually refer to our creation “in the image of God.” And that is a good answer. At least, it’s a good first answer. The problem, however, is that it is unclear exactly what that means. Does the “image” refer to our rational nature? Does it point to our assignment to rule over creation? Or is it a moral quality that can be lost and regained? Each of these answers has found brilliant defenders throughout Christian history. Hence merely asserting that we are created “in the image of God” still leaves us with questions. And each of the proposed explanations of the “image” refers to a quality or a role that never escapes the realm of the comparative and the limited. I could still ask, “Am I really worth it?”

There is another theme in the Bible that touches on human worth. And its meaning is much clearer than the image of God theme. Perhaps you have noticed that I have been using the words “dignity” and “worth” interchangeably in this essay. This is because the word dignity is derived from the Latin word for worth. The word dignity does not resonate with the English language as well as the word “worth.” Dignity is vague but worth is clear. We know that something is worth something if it is worth something to someone. The word dignity sounds mysterious and even vacuous.

Hence the question “How much is a human being worth and why?” can be answered only by specifying who values human beings and how much. Does this mean, then, that if no other human being values me I am worth nothing? Does my dignity rise and fall with others’ attitudes toward me? No, it does not.  And here is why.

That other theme in the Bible and Christian history is that we are worth something because we are worth something to God. God loves us! God does not love us because we possess certain excellent qualities or that we have achieved something admirable. Everything excellent and admirable in us is caused by God’s love. God’s love for us has no cause outside God. God’s love is the beginning, the explanation and the cause of everything worth loving in us. So, “Am I really worth it?” Yes, you really are because God’s love is the cause of everything real. God’s love for you is real and eternal. It cannot change.

But how much does God love me? Perhaps God loves me more than human beings love me, but is there a limit to God’s love? If God’s love is finite, is my worth is finite as well? And if my worth is finite won’t I still dream of greater dignity and hence experience unhappiness? No, God’s love for you is infinite!

In the New Testament, the proof of God’s love for us is that he gave his Son for us (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 5:1-2; Galatians 2:20; 1 John 4:9-11, and so many more). How much does the Father love Jesus his eternal Son? The Father loves his Son as much as he loves himself! How much does the Father love us? Since he gave his Son for us–and he loves his Son as much as he loves himself–we know the Father loves us as much as he loves himself!

“Am I really worth it?” According the New Testament, God thinks you are! Don’t look at yourself for evidence that you are loved, that you are worth it. Look to God and know that the giving love of the Father and the self-giving love of the Son demonstrate how much God thinks you are worth.

As a post script, listen to the words of the 12th Century theologian and spiritual writer Bernard of Clairvaux:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?” (On Loving God)

Note: This installment can be read as a companion to chapter 15 of God, Freedom and Human Dignity (“God’s Love as the Ground and Measure of Human Dignity”).

Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the Kantian and modern-self views of human dignity. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

2. What is your view of the biblical theme of “the image of God”? Do you agree that its meaning is rather vague?

3. What are the implications of thinking of the word “dignity” as “worth”? What is gained and what is lost by this interpretation?

4. Discuss the shift to grounding human dignity in God’s love and away from grounding it in qualities we possess.

5. Discuss the idea that God’s loves us as much as God loves himself?

6. Reflect on how we may appropriate the secure foundation and magnitude of our worth advocated in this essay? How would internalizing this view of our worth affect our joy and confidence in life? And how would it affect the way we treat other people?

 

Next week: The conclusion to the series!

The “for us” God: God and the Modern Self #8

We’ve thought for seven weeks about how the dominant sector of modern culture views God and the human self. We’ve seen that its view of human freedom and dignity and its formula for happiness guarantee that God will be viewed as a threat to the self. Now it is time to ask another set of questions: what is the Christian view of God and the human self? How does the gospel understand human freedom and dignity and the quest for happiness? Is there a way to conceive of God and the human self that enables us to affirm both God’s full deity and our full humanity? In the next three installments we will examine the Christian view of God and contrast this view with the distorted view of the modern self.

We can consider God as a threat to human freedom and dignity only if we forget that God is our Creator. Every good and beautiful thing that was, is and ever will be receives its existence from God. God gives us being, time and space, life and all our powers. Freedom and dignity, too, are divine gifts. Gifts! Pure gifts! God’s act of creating the world is completely free and gracious. God did not need anything and gains nothing for himself by creating. Existence is a pure gift, and God expects nothing in return. Nothing. Nothing at all. Ever.

Sometimes we have a hard time letting ourselves believing this. We do not give gifts in this way. Nor does anyone else we know. Hence we have a hard time feeling unmixed gratitude and allowing God’s gifts to reveal his love for us. Surely there must be a catch! But there is no catch. According to Christianity everything God gives us and expects from us is for our good, not his. It’s all for us. Nothing we can do can enhance God’s power, goodness, greatness or glory. Quite the opposite, God creates us to share in his power, goodness, greatness and glory! C.S. Lewis voices this truth in his own inimitable way: “God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them” (The Four Loves, p. 127).

If we knew nothing else about God than that he freely created us so that we could enjoy what God has, this alone would prove that God poses no threat our freedom or dignity. But Christianity points us dramatically beyond the gift of creation.  In Jesus Christ, God gave himself to us. God gave himself not for good people, grateful people, people that honor God; God gave himself for his enemies, the thoughtless and ungrateful. Undoubtedly with his own experience in mind Paul states it this way: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). These two words, “for us”, refute the modern self’s view of God. God does nothing for himself; it’s all for us.

I will leave you with a passage in which Bernard of Clairvaux strains language to express his amazement at God’s love for us:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?” (On Loving God).

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 8 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Self-Giving God of the Gospel”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the idea that God did not need the world and created it solely for the benefit of creatures. Do you agree? Does this idea make sense?

2. Contrast the Christian concept of the generous Creator with the image of God held by the modern self. Would the God of the modern self give anything freely, with no strings attached?

3. Consider the image of God revealed in Jesus Christ, the self-giving God of the gospel. Does it make sense to envy the God of the gospel or want to take his place?

4. Reflect again on the two contrasting images of God, that of the modern self and that seen in Jesus Christ. The modern self’s image of God evokes envy, but the Father of Jesus Christ evokes love. Explore the reasons for these different human reactions.

5. How would you evaluate the claim that in relation to us God does nothing for himself and everything for us.

 

Note: in the next installment we will examine the idea of divine omnipotence. Is God’s universally active power a threat to our freedom? Should we wish for God to have less power so that we can have more power?