Recently, in a couple of different venues, I’ve tried a little social experiment suggested by theologian Kelly Kapic. I’ve asked groups of Christians two questions. The first is, “Do you believe that God loves you?” The response is nearly automatic and universal: Of course God loves us! Didn’t he send Jesus to die for us? Haven’t we all memorized John 3:16?
But then comes the second question: “Do you think God likes you?” After all, in English, the word “love” is supposed to indicate something deeper and more significant than “like.” If God loves us, shouldn’t he at least like us? But when I ask that question, people look down at the floor or laugh nervously, as if caught in some embarrassing circumstance.
Most who have heard and received the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ know that his sacrificial death was an expression of God’s love for humanity. Amen and hallelujah.
But is that love just a theological postulate to us, an abstraction? Having believed a gospel of love and grace, do we then turn around and try to prove our worth? If we’re being honest with ourselves, we might recognize how often we approach God furtively, not as someone who loves us, but someone who tolerates us because he has to. Or perhaps we approach God seldom or not at all, feeling the need to get our act together first. Sure, sure, I know God loves humanity. But me personally…?
This is what is so astounding to me about the words we’ve been exploring in Philippians 2, about what it means to worship a humble God of unconditional love. When we live from a place of shame, we may take the sacrifice of Jesus in a way that robs it of love. It’s as if our Father in heaven were rolling his eyes at these helpless, hapless people he created: Humanity. Go figure. What a mess they’ve made of everything! Well (sigh), I guess there’s only one thing to do…
The sacrifice of Jesus, in this view, is not an act of love in any way that we would normally understand it, but a concession to our brokenness, our spiritual incompetence.
Can you imagine instead that God actually wants to save us? To save you, personally?
Put differently, the humility of God is not merely something God does out of some external necessity, a solution to a problem, a concession to an unfortunate situation we created. Humility is of the very character of God, embodied in the person of Jesus. It is an expression of who God is, not what God was forced to do.
Again, this is not a matter of being shy or unassertive, self-deprecating or unwilling to recognize our worth. None of these things describe the humility of Jesus. His humility is embodied in sacrificial service, doing the Father’s will, and always confident of his Father’s love.
To have a similar confidence is my hope for myself and for all who believe. I suspect that much of the tension that exists everywhere between believers can be traced back to our need to prove ourselves, whether to God or to each other. We take refuge in being “right,” or competent, or accomplished instead of taking refuge in God’s love. We seek to find and shore up our sense of worthiness with what we do, instead of accepting that we are already of inestimable worth in God’s sight.
It may be counterintuitive to our notions of deity; it may challenge our inclination to shame. But we must believe in a humble and loving God who wants not only our service, but our devotion.
And maybe, just maybe, we might begin to believe that God likes us. At least a little. We have to start somewhere.