Does God Only Love Me Because He Has To?
Among the many immeasurable attributes of God, Christians speak of God as being “all-loving.” Yet oftentimes this raises a fear within us: Does God actually want to love us, or is He just forced to by his character? We often don’t feel very lovable; does God feel the same way about us? This week, Jo and Vince discuss why God loves, and how we can be sure God’s love isn’t due to obligation, but is actually his genuine feeling toward his children. To read the article Jo references in this episode about Bailey’s story, click here.
Question Asked in This Episode: “Does God love me because He has to? I know that as a child of God He loves me, but does He love me because his character demands it, or does He actually want to love me? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and I can’t seem to accept the fact that God loves me because He wants to. Can you help me understand God’s love for his children?”
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of ask away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I'm your host, Michael Davis. The depths of the glory and the magnificence of God are immeasurable. His attributes are perfect. Yet even with scripture clearly defining these truths, coming to terms and the full understanding of the scope of their implications is impossible. When we say that God's love is perfect, it sounds right, but the repercussions are mind boggling. He literally loved us before we were born. But is this love simply a matter of his attributes, or because he desires to love us? Does God actually want to love us, or is he forced to by his character? How can we explain God's love to those who don't know him? What it is oftentimes so difficult to reconcile it ourselves. But before we get started, Vince actually has a request for everyone listening.
Vince Vitale: Thanks Michael. Everyone, I just wanted to request prayer for us as a ministry, for the team, for Michael, for Jo, for me. 2020 has just started in such a full way from opportunities, to challenges, to discernment that we're having to wrestle through about different places that we might go or different things that we might do. And just some things within the team as well, even going on in our personal lives, where we just really need God to come alongside. And we just really believe that the greatest gift of being a part of this ministry is a community of people around the world who are willing to pray for us. We can't tell you how much that means.
Vince Vitale: We are so aware of the fact that anything we're able to do in the context of this ministry is because of the way we've been upheld by prayer, globally. This is just a time where we could specifically use it and so I'd just like to invite you and thank you for praying for us.
Michael Davis: Excellent. Well, let's get to our question. This question is from Kara. "Does God love me because He has to. I know that as a child of God, He loves me, but does He love me because his character demands it, or does He actually want to love me? I've been thinking a lot about this lately and I can't seem to accept the fact that God loves me because He wants to. Can you help me understand God's love for his children?"
Jo Vitale: Kara, this is a question that I wrestled and wrestled and wrestled with for a long time. I'm growing up in the church and so I'm really glad that you have asked it today, because it's important and I think a lot of people struggle with this question. I don't know if you've ever done a personality test. I had to do Myers-Briggs a few years ago and the thing I hate about personality tests is that once you do it, you're boxed into whatever letters you come up with, or whatever thing it is. I remember before I did it, I was just really hoping I was going to get a J, because J means you're organized on Myers-Briggs, but instead of course I got P which is like you're spontaneous and things happen at the last minute if they happen at all.
Jo Vitale: And, and I remember thinking, "Oh this is so annoying because it would so much more helpful in my life if I could be a J." Vince is a J, you probably can tell. I just wanted to be a J, and felt inhibited by this. And it's like, "I will never be an organized person. I'm just doomed. I'm destined this way." And of course life doesn't actually work like that. I have to figure out ways to be organized. But I just wonder if sometimes we feel the same way with this question about God as well. It's like, does God's personality test just come up as love? Is that just what He got stuck with? 1 John 4, verses 7-21, or whatever. That whole passage where it talks about God is love that that is who He is. That is his personality type.
Jo Vitale: And it leaves us thinking sometimes, "Well what if God's like, "Oh, what a nightmare. I didn't really want to love that person. They kind of annoy me to be honest, but it's just my personality type. I'm just going to have to. It's who I am. It's what I do.""
Michael Davis: "I'm an L."
Jo Vitale: "I'm stuck this way. I'm just an L. I am just a love." And I'm being a little bit facetious here, because I think sometimes we need to draw that out to recognize, actually I think deep down we ask the question, but we know that's not how love works.
Michael Davis: Right.
Jo Vitale: That's not what love is, actually. Love doesn't work that way. Love cannot be forced. I'm sure some of you have tried in previous relationships. "If I could just love this pass and it would be so much easier." But love is freely given. Love is a choice. And the fact that God is love doesn't mean that He's stuck in some kind of way where he's obligated to love you, even though he doesn't want to. Actually, it's the other way round. The reason God is love is because God chooses to be love. There is no one holding something over his head and saying, "You have to be this way." No one made God and therefore no one made God to have to be that way. That is who he is because that is how he chooses to be.
Vince Vitale: That's great. And I first realized that Jo struggled with this when got married. And I would tell her, "I love you." And she would respond, "But do you like me?" I was so confused. [crosstalk 00:05:30] I had no idea what to do. I was like, "Well of course." I said, "I love you and love is stronger than like, therefore I like you." But this was communicating.
Jo Vitale: I was like, "I need reasons."
Vince Vitale: It was communicating this struggle, right? It's like, "Okay, you're married to me now, so you have to love me. That's what you're supposed to do."
Michael Davis: Right.
Vince Vitale: "But do you actually like me? Do you actually delight in me? Do you actually want to hang out? Is it a joy for you." And it took me some time to get to a place where I was-
Michael Davis: Have kids.
Vince Vitale: ...listening well.
Michael Davis: They'll teach you that lesson real quick.
Jo Vitale: For a second I thought you were going to say it took you a while to figure out if you liked me. Didn't go that way.
Vince Vitale: Clearly Jo still struggles with the question. But exactly. I realized over time, these are two very different questions for Jo and for many of us. And not just in human relationships, but also when we think about God. Does God just have to love us? But our deeper question is, does He delight in us? Does He desire us? Does He want to be around us? Does He seek after us? It's a really deep question. It's also a really philosophical question that you've asked. And so the philosophy geek in me, Kara, really appreciates this question.
Vince Vitale: Let's remember God didn't need to create a universe at all. And He still would have been God. His character still would have been perfectly loving, because He would have existed eternally in the perfectly loving relationship of the Trinity. Because the Christian God is three persons, the Christian God is a relationship intrinsically, God doesn't need to create at all in order to have that characteristic trait that you've mentioned of Him being perfectly loving. And so that's another reason why you can know that actually there's something else other than just his character that must've inclined him to create not just a universe in general, but a universe that brought into being you specifically.
Vince Vitale: It wasn't because he needed to do that in order to have the character of being loving. He would have had that for all eternity in the relationship of the Trinity, even if He never created. So why did He create? Well, I believe He did create, because He desired to love you. He wanted to love you. And every other person who has come to exist.
Jo Vitale: And what a relief is that right? Maybe it's a little humbling for us, but God didn't need us.
Michael Davis: Right, right.
Jo Vitale: He didn't need us to fulfill some purpose. He didn't make us just to be useful, or to complete certain tasks or whatever. And actually the reality here is one of the reasons you know God loves you is because really He didn't have to make you. One of our recent episodes is talking about the fact that in the Bible says God has made us fearfully and wonderfully, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. And actually if God didn't want you, if He didn't actually love you, then there are so many combinations of genes, there are so many different strands of DNA. He could have made anyone in that moment.
Michael Davis: Yeah.
Jo Vitale: But it's you.
Vince Vitale: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Jo Vitale: And so why? Why are you here if God didn't need you, why you, as a particular person do you even exist? I can't think of a single reason except for the fact of grace that actually God wants you to live. Your life actually has value and meaning to God. Otherwise, He doesn't need you to be here.
Vince Vitale: And to think of the lengths that he went to in order for that to be possible. You glanced in that direction, Jo, but if you just take a minute to think about what are all of the details that would have needed to be in place for you specifically to come to exist? For that specific sperm to meet that specific egg at just the right time? Let alone the universe, just having the parameters it would have to have, to even have humans be able to exist to even make it possible for your parents to meet and to come into a relationship. It's incredible to think the detail of the planning that had to go into your existence. That is humbling. It makes me smile as well though, to think that somebody could be interested in going to that level of detail for me and for the people that I love.
Michael Davis: It's interesting. And if you don't mind, I'm going to read some scripture here. Ephesians 1, "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world that He, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love, he predestined us for adoption as sons through Christ Jesus to himself." So this isn't some random thing. This goes back to her eternities past.
Vince Vitale: Yeah, exactly.
Jo Vitale: Way before you were-
Michael Davis: Yeah.
Jo Vitale: ...even a twinkle in the eye of whomever.
Vince Vitale: Before you were born and Jeremiah talking about us being set apart before you were born, I knew you. You were set apart.
Jo Vitale: That's right. And I really liked that you framed your question in the context of “what does it mean for God to love me as a child?” I think that's the right way to think about this. And the Bible really speaks in that kind of imagery. I love the fact that God is our father, but I also take so much comfort in some of the mothering imagery that is used of God in the Bible as well. I love these words from Isaiah 49 when God is speaking to his people. And Zion says, "The Lord has forgotten me, the Lord has forsaken me." And then the response is, "Can a mother forget her nursing child or lack compassion for the son of her womb? Though she may forget, I will not forget you. Behold, I have you inscribed you on the palms of my hands. Your walls are ever before me."
Jo Vitale: And I just love those words. Just this promise of God, "I could never forget you." Even though human parents have failings, that's something that is not true of God. And I particularly love that image. Someone recently wrote to me about it and shared how in the ancient Near East, there was a tradition that the mothers in that culture, not fathers, but actually mothers would literally tattoo the names of children upon their palms, so that there was a sense in which they are always before you and looking at you. And I just love the fact that the Bible is picking up on that cultural imagery to make a point about the way God sees us. And that image of God seeing us specifically.
Jo Vitale: Because I think sometimes we think, "Well, I know God loves in general, he loves humanity, but does He specifically see and love me?" But that is a theme that runs throughout scripture. The specificities. Who knows. The unique way in which God loves the individual. We see this in Genesis in the story of Hagar who everyone else has forgotten. She's overlooked, she's a female, she's a foreigner, she's a slave. She's literally a nobody in ancient Israel. And she's at the weakest, lowest point of her life. And in that moment where she's given up all hope, she has this unbelievable encounter with God. And she actually names Him. She's the only person in the Bible to give God a name rather than God revealing his own name.
Jo Vitale: And she says, "You are the God who sees me." And then we have scriptures that refer to God's eyes ranging throughout the earth to strengthen the hearts of those who are committed to Him. And then we have Jesus asking profound questions. For example, "Do you see this woman?" A woman who everyone else in town has overlooked and labeled, and dismissed, but He sees her for who she is. We have in the Psalms it says, "Lord, you see me and you know me. You perceive my thoughts from afar." This whole theme of God's seeing the individual. But more than just seeing, it's not like, "Oh, there they are." It's like, "I see you, I know you and you are loved by me." That just runs all the way throughout scripture.
Jo Vitale: Of course, the place to land is that the parable of the lost sheep. Even when God has 99 sheep still in the pen, He still goes after that one. That's just who He is. But not just who He is in a sense of, "Oh, but He has no choice about it." He wants you. He's running after you, Kara, specifically.
Vince Vitale: The other thing I find so encouraging, counterintuitively, is that we don't deserve God's love.
Michael Davis: Yeah, Amen.
Vince Vitale: Because actually if we deserved God's love, then I would be more tempted to think, "Well maybe He just has to love me."
Michael Davis: Right. Right.
Vince Vitale: Maybe it's just like a moral obligation to love me. Because I deserve it and He's morally perfect, so he should love beings that deserve love.
Michael Davis: Right.
Vince Vitale: So counterintuitively, it's actually really encouraging to me to just accept the fact that I don't deserve God's love. And yet he has shown his love for me to such an extent that He came and was willing to die for me.
Michael Davis: Yeah.
Vince Vitale: That has to be because He wants to love me, not because He needs to. Because there's certainly not something in me, a dessert in me that would warrant that love. It's his free choice to show love in a direction that's not worthy of it.
Michael Davis: Right. Yeah, we're sons and daughters. Just like we imperfectly love our children. He loves us as sons and daughters. It's awesome.
Jo Vitale: And I love that. That you know God loves you because He gave you life in the first place. And to back it up, you know He loves you, because then He came and gave you his own life. Again, even at great cost to Himself. And I love this verse again, out of that same passage in 1 John 4. "And this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins." And that's such an important verse, because I think sometimes we get this idea in our heads of, "Well maybe God the Father didn't really want to love us, but because Jesus died, He has to." It's like Jesus, on the cross, twisted his arm. Jesus intervene between God and humanity and said, Oh, "I know they're awful, but don't hate them. Take me instead."
Jo Vitale: People have this really warped theology-
Michael Davis: No, you're right.
Jo Vitale: ...of the atonement, that they think that's what's going on. But it's such a misconception of what takes place. The cross was purposed by the Trinity before the foundation of the world. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all of them did that out of the desire to love. I love the quote from John Stott. I may have even used it before at some point, when he says, "God doesn't love us because Christ died. Christ died because God loves us." And that is the way around that it is. He doesn't save us because He has some kind of weird hero complex.
Jo Vitale: It's just like, "I'm just going to save the people I hate because it'll make me look like a nice guy." No. Why would he bother? As you said, he doesn't need us. He comes. He selflessly sacrifices himself because he loves us. God takes the initiative. If He didn't want you, He wouldn't pursue you in that way. It wouldn't start with him. It wouldn't be the case that we love because God loved us first. We're not begging for scraps here. This is the God who is in pursuit of us.
Vince Vitale: Thinking of the love that we find in the incarnation, I was thinking about James K. A. Smith's book, You Are What You Love, from Calvin College. And he's talking about us as human persons, that we are what we love as we develop habits and ways of engaging with culture. That's who we become. But I was thinking about, if you think about it from the divine perspective, you are what you love and the Christian God is the only God who is human. 100% divine and 100% human. So in the incarnation, if James Smith is right about that, you are what you love, we see in the humanity of God what God loves.
Jo Vitale: That was really good, Vince.
Vince Vitale: Thank you.
Jo Vitale: Yeah, I like that. And what's so amazing about that is that God would love humanity. Because when you think about humanity, I think sometimes the reason we wrestle with this question of does God love us, is because it's not maybe because we're questioning the character of God and his love, but maybe it's more that we look at ourselves and we're just so focused on, "But I know I don't deserve it."
Vince Vitale: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michael Davis: Right.
Jo Vitale: "There is nothing lovable here. What could he possibly like about me?"
Vince Vitale: Yeah. I remember when I used to do interviews for students at the seminary that I used to work at. And one of the questions I would give them is, "What does God think of you?" And there'd be this awkward pause, or they would look uncomfortable. And then almost every one of them would start telling me about all of the things that they should have done better over the last month and basically give me an assessment of the works in their life, and where they really need to improve. And I thought the hopeful, instinctive answer-
Michael Davis: At seminary.
Vince Vitale: ...would just be to talk about God's love for you. And what God has done for you. "Wow. He must think really strongly about me. His affection for me must be so deep if this is what Jesus has done for me." But that question, we find it so difficult to accept that. And almost to the person, they would immediately go to talking about how we haven't lived up to God's love. And I think behind that as a question of, is that love really there?
Jo Vitale: I think there's such a struggle in us, isn't there? Of, "How could God possibly love me when I can barely even love myself?"
Michael Davis: Yeah.
Jo Vitale: In fact, maybe I don't even love myself. But what I love, we see it played out in the gospel so many times, is that Jesus isn't put off by the things that we think he's going to be put off by. He's not put off by the things we're put off by, humanly. And we look at the people he goes after. He sees Zacchaeus up a tree. This greedy man who everybody hates because he made money off the suffering of his own community. And Jesus recognizes something in him, and he goes off to him. Or he sees the woman who reaches out and touches him in the crowd and he says, "Who touched me?"
Jo Vitale: And everyone's like, "What are you talking about?" But he senses that one person, that their touch is significant enough for him to pay attention and to heal her. Same with the invalid lying by the healing pool, in John's gospel. Jesus actually sees him lying there. He doesn't come to Jesus. Jesus goes to him. And what that speaks to us is that the beautiful message of the gospel as Jesus himself says that, "It's not the healthy who need a doctor. It's the sick." And those are the people that he actually comes for. And that's such a relief to me that God isn't frightened by our sickness, instead what he asks us is the question, "Do you want to be well?"
Jo Vitale: And I was thinking about this the other day with, Raphael, who's nearly one year old now. And he was really sick, he had this fever and this really runny nose and he's spitting up everywhere. But as a parent, you don't think, "Oh gross. Get away from me." You want to hold them close, you want to ease their pain. And you don't even care about the fact that they're making a mess of you in the process. Because that's not what it's about. And even to the point, I'm so far gone now, that when I get to work and I look down and I can literally tell the height of our child by the drool stains along the bottom of my skirt, mark exactly how tall he is. But I'm not like, "Oh no, he's ruined my outfit." I'm like, Oh, "Isn't that adorable? That my son who's drooled all over me."
Jo Vitale: And the way I love him is just nothing compared to the way God loves us. We really are his children. Our walls are always before Him, just like Raphael's drool apparently is always before me. But just as my son is engraved on my heart, how much more is that the case with God that we are engraved on his?
Vince Vitale: Well and we want to know that God loves us and not just loves us, but that He delights in us, I think there's no better place to go then Isaiah 62. "You will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow. You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord's hand, a Royal diadem in the hand of your God. The Lord will take delight in you and your land will be married. As a young man marries a young woman, so will your builder marry you. As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. You will be called sought after. The city, no longer deserted."
Jo Vitale: I love that you read that passage so much actually. Because I'm one of their students that we saw come to faith on a university campus at Berkeley a few years ago, that specific Bible passages was actually incredibly woven into the way that she came to faith across that week. She was on the run from God and go just chase that down. I don't even have time to explain the numerous ways in which He did say, but one of the ways was in giving her that verse. Another way was in actually in different ways, people giving her flowers throughout that week that were very unique. And actually clearly this incredible gift from God.
Jo Vitale: I wrote a little write up of that event, so I'll put the link in the profile so you guys can read about it, but I encourage you to do so, because that's the most obvious instance I've ever seen of the way God goes after the one and does it with such love. And actually in that moment when I prayed with her to become a Christian, I remember we'd been going back and forth and she had been wrestling with it. And then finally she just threw up her hands and said, "Fine, God you win." I remember in that moment saying to her, "Actually, I don't think it's that God wants you just say, "You win." I think what He's really asking is for you to say, "I do.""
Jo Vitale: I think that was the relationship that He longed to step into with her and to have with her. And that is true of every one of us. And that is true of you too, Kara. So maybe that's something for you just to be reflecting on this week actually. What is the kind of intimacy and relationship that God desires with you? Because I truly believed that He loves and desires you. And maybe this is the week to actually say yes to that, to step into that. To say, "I do God, I will be all in with this if you're going to love me to that extent. And then take me as I am whatever I've got. You say this is lovable even if I don't feel that way. So would you show me how you feel about me and teach me how to love you the way that you have already loved me."
Michael Davis: Awesome. Well guys, we are out of time, Vince, sum it up for us.
Vince Vitale: Well, as you've heard me say before, every good question is worth turning around and asking of ourselves as well. So if we turn this question around, do we love God because we have to?
Michael Davis: Oh yeah.
Vince Vitale: Or because we want to? And have we made sure, it goes to what Jo was just saying, have we made sure that God knows we love him because we want to? Do we tell him? Do we actually say to God, "I love you?" Do we say it out loud? As a parent with a one year old, I cannot wait until he can say that to me. He can say that to me verbally. That he'll say that to me in front of other people. What joy that would bring to my heart. Do we actually tell him that we love him? Do we tell him that more than we tell other people? Do we show it to him? Do we spend time with him? Do we tell others about it?
Vince Vitale: When we love someone deeply, we tell others about that love that we have for that person. So let's be confident in the love that God has for us. It's not because He has to love us, it's because He deeply desires to. And let's turn that around on ourselves as well and take this opportunity to ensure that we love God. Not because we have to, not because it's what our parents have done, not because it's what our family has done, not because it's what our society has done. But it's because what we want to do and we make sure that we tell that to him just as we long to hear the same words from him.
Michael Davis: Awesome. Vince, Jo, thank you guys for joining me. Thank you all for listening and we'll catch you guys next time.
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