There is a popular refrain within Christianity, repeated frequently by many, that is so simple and seemingly self-evident that very few people probably even give it a second thought. We repeat it with such matter-of-factness that its axiomatic veracity has perhaps reached the level of canonization.
The thought goes something like this: there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more than He already does, nor any less than He already does. Or, in a more abbreviated sense, we may simply say that it is not possible for God to love us any more or any less than He already does.
For some time, however, I have wondered if such an idea needs to be disturbed and challenged. This wonderment was first instigated by a quote I came across a number of years ago – the fruit of which is now coming into greater focus. This idea was further encouraged when, after starting to write this post a month or so ago, I began reading a book by my friend, and associate professor of theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University, John Peckham, entitled The Love of God (a book I can’t recommend highly enough – though, in full disclosure, it engages in significant heavy scholarly and academic lifting).
I will get to the original quote in due time, but let me first share a caveat and then delve into my biblical and philosophical reasons for questioning this popular adage.
First, the caveat: I fully appreciate the reason as to why such an idea is expressed – and fully agree with its intention. Fighting against an underlying legalism that, at the very least, lurks beneath the surface of all our psyches, we want to steer clear of the merit-based type of love that characterizes sinful humanity. Any sort of love that uses the language of “if . . . then” we want to disassociate from God with all the passion and zeal we can muster.
I get that. And I agree. To be sure, I think the Bible is clear that God loves us independent of anything we do. The most famous Scripture of all addresses that with unequivocal clarity: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16) Jesus explains to Nicodemus.
But in our attempts to strip God’s love of every ounce of “conditionalism,” I wonder if we have also stripped it of its complexity, depth, and dynamism. Perhaps we’ve flattened God’s love such that, as Peckham quotes Charles Hartshorne as caricaturing, He is merely a “heartless benefit machine” who is “less than a friend” (p. 37).
What seems to have happened is that our understanding of God’s love has been largely shaped by Greek Platonic philosophy which was systematically introduced into Christianity by Augustine 1500 years ago and further promulgated by the likes of Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin – which shouldn’t come as a surprise to the perceptive Adventist.
Thus, considered through such a prism, God’s love is static, immovable, and emotionless. It cannot grow, it cannot diminish – precisely because it is inherently perfect and self-determining, immune from any influences outside itself.
On the one hand, we can somewhat appreciate such a philosophy. After all, Plato’s perspectives on the absolute perfection and self-sufficiency of God arose during a time in which the gods of Greece were mercurial and unpredictable at best – to say nothing of the primitive gods of the Ancient Near East.
And yet, Platonic philosophy takes us from one ditch to the other – and certainly does not accurately reflect the testimony of Scripture. In the Bible, God and His love are a lot more dynamic and passible (that is, capable of being affected by His creatures). Thus, for example, God says through Hosea, “When Israel was a child, I loved Him . . . My heart churns within Me; My sympathy is stirred” (11:1, 8). Even more shockingly, in a verse that comes a few chapters before, God laments about His people: “All their wickedness is in Gilgal, for there I hated them. Because of the evil of their deeds I will drive them from My house; I will love them no more. All their princes are rebellious” (9:15, emphasis added).
Needless to say, in our discussions about God’s love, we tend to gloss over such uncomfortable verses – and there are many other similar ones that, while not necessarily explicitly addressing the idea of whether God can love us more or less, definitely demonstrate the dynamic nature of His love.
To be sure, there is a sense in which God has always and will always love us (see Jeremiah 31:3); that is not in question. The question is to what extent and to what degree God loves us, and whether or not our actions – positive or negative – can truly affect His inner life.
When I clothe the naked or feed the hungry, for example, do these actions actually – in a real, concrete sense – affect God in such a way that He experiences greater feelings of fondness toward me? Conversely, when I act with malice toward others, does this elicit a corresponding response from God?
Or do God’s feelings toward me – no matter my behavior – always resemble a flatline on a heart monitor?
Again, the question is not whether God does love us; the question is whether our behavior can actually affect that love.
To this end, John Peckham has labeled his model of God’s love as the “foreconditional-reciprocal” model – that is, God’s love exists prior to human action, but does contain expectations in order for it to be fully effective.
Truthfully, such a perspective gives greater depth to the God-human relationship. After all, just as we often like to say that God is not interested in having a relationship with machines who are devoid of choice, neither do we want to have a relationship with a God devoid of feeling who is incapable of evaluating our behavior and responding accordingly. Really, isn’t there a sense in which we as humans – created in God’s image – long to have praiseworthy behavior acknowledged in such a way that is differentiated from less acceptable behavior?
Do we really want a God Who pats us on the head with a twinkle in His eye both when we mess up and when we do right? It seems that the latter would be cheapened by the former, and, in fact, make the latter meaningless.
To be sure, we want a God who values and cares and accepts us no matter what we do. And this is biblical and right and good. But we also want to be affirmed in a unique way when we do something good – not as a matter of pride, but as a matter of natural relational equity, and assurance that we are truly – in a real, concrete sense – bringing happiness to the One we love. (If God always affirms me no matter what I do, how can I ever tell if my actions actually bless Him? This, of course, is a question that is completely incomprehensible for the person fully committed to the classic, Platonic understanding of God wherein God is not affected by anything outside of Himself – a perspective that includes much, if not most, of Christendom.)
Perhaps it’s important, however, to make a distinction between behavior that is meritorious, and behavior that is merely evaluated. By this I mean that our good behavior does not merit God’s love, but it does influence its scope and effectiveness. As John Peckham puts it, “God never removes his love from anyone who wishes to receive his love. However, the object(s) of God’s love may reject intimate relationship with God and, if persistent in such a rejection, forfeit reception of divine love altogether. . . . If I finally spurn God’s love, his love may continue to shine like the rays of the sun, but, by my own decisions, I am completely shaded from its light and warmth as if I have locked myself in a windowless basement” (p. 213).
Truthfully, our own intuition tells us that love grows – which is how I can say that the love I had for my wife when we first got married pales in comparison to the love I have for her now. We are mere finite humans, of course, and we can’t always assume that our experience mirrors the experience of the omnipotent God; but we were also created in His image, and nowhere in Scripture does it say that God can’t love us more than He already does (our assumptions notwithstanding).
So perhaps we need to look again at the Biblical record, considering afresh the dynamic nature of God’s love for us.
All this brings me to the quote I alluded to in the beginning. It is mentioned most notably in both The Desire of Ages and Steps to Christ where Ellen White reflects upon a verse that, in and of itself, should give us pause. That verse is John 10:17, where Jesus startlingly says, “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again.”
Notice the critical word “because”! Apparently, there is a sense in which Christ’s sacrifice for the human race induced from the heart of the Father a greater love on some level. To be sure, the Father has always loved the Son – even before sin entered the world and even before the world existed (see John 17:24). But both verses and ideas need to be held in tension and brought into harmony with one another.
Ellen White, in the aforementioned books, tries her hand at harmonizing the two. “That is,” she writes, “My Father has so loved you that He even loves Me more for giving My life to redeem you. In becoming your Substitute and Surety, by surrendering My life, by taking your liabilities, your transgressions, I am endeared to My Father; for by My sacrifice, God can be just, and yet the Justifier of him who believeth in Jesus” (The Desire of Ages, p. 483; Steps to Christ, p. 14, emphasis added).
Notice those audacious words: “He even loves Me more for giving My life to redeem you.” Don’t miss it! According to Jesus, according to Ellen White, God’s love is dynamic. It can grow and deepen and expand – responding, yes, to the actions of others.
This may make us feel a bit uncomfortable, admittedly. But, again, this does not mean God’s love for us is ever in question. He will never stop loving us. And such a reality is not a prescription for holier performance so we can earn God’s love in greater measure. More than anything it is describing the dynamics of God’s love, rather than prescribing a way to procure more of it.
It’s simply an acknowledgment that God’s love – while consistent, long-suffering, and compassionate – is also characterized by emotion, responsiveness, and, yes, expansion and contraction. Indeed, while God may not be a human (at least the Father), He is a Person (in fact, the prototypical Person), fully equipped with all the relational capacities that we possess.
And all this should give us a greater sympathy for God’s situation, a greater sensitivity to His inner life, thoughts, and feelings.