This article is available in Korean.
I was recently asked whether I feel that I “deserve” God’s love. Reared in Evangelical communities, I know the answer that was expected of me: a pitiful and self-flagellating, “No. As a sinner, I do not deserve God’s love.” Indeed, many Christians are taught—and dutifully profess—that in their inborn, sinful state, they are, in fact, an unsightly abomination in God’s eyes, and utterly undeserving of His love.
And, of course, it is true that we are all highly imperfect, finite beings. But I’m left wondering, what does this have to do with God’s love for us? We are all “sinners,” to be sure, but is God obligated only to love the perfect?
For those of you who are parents, ask yourself, do your children “deserve” your love? As I think most parents can sense, there is something off about such a question—something not-quite-right in the way it conceptualizes the love between parent and child. On the one hand, we are immediately inclined to answer, “yes.” Even though we are well-aware of our children’s imperfections, we still see their core “goodness.” But what of the more extreme examples: the drug-addicted son; the rebellious, self-absorbed daughter? Is the parent truly under no obligation to love the wayward child? Should the ideal parent love their child less because of the child’s catastrophic mistakes? We all know the answer in our hearts: the love of the ideal parent is rightly unconditional.
Neither does the ideal parent ever see even the most wayward child as an unsightly abomination (in the way that many Christians imagine God sees the sinner). This is not because the parent's love somehow “blinds” them from the truth. To the contrary, it is precisely their love which motivates them to see through the trappings of tragic circumstance to the core truth of the matter—to see the innate value and beauty of the child’s soul.
To any who would suggest seriously that the sinner is of no inherent value in God’s sight, or deny that God is the sinner's Father, I remind you of Jesus' words to the lowly masses in Matthew 6:26 (c.f Matt. 12:12, Luke 12:24):
“Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” (NASB95)
As a parent, it becomes abundantly clear that love, properly conceived, is not a function of merit, but rather relationship. Were it to come to our attention that one of our children thought of our love as something to be earned, the proper response must be: “My child, my love is not something to be deserved. It is yours from the beginning. It is yours because you are mine.”
It is inappropriate to speak of children as being either “deserving” or “undeserving” of a parent’s love. Reward or discipline, yes. But love transcends both. It is better, I think, to say that the child has the right to the love of the parent. My children have an irrevocable right to my love precisely because of our special relationship to one another—a relationship which can never change. So also, every human being—created by God in His image, and thus as a child of God—has the right to God’s love. Put another way, it is indeed right that God, as the perfect and good creator of all, should love His creatures.
To talk of God’s love as something to be “deserved” (such as saying, “I do not deserve God’s love”) is to misconstrue our relationship to Him. It is to revert back to the old, pre-Christ paradigm: the one in which God is seen as an austere judge to be feared and assuaged. In doing so, we place ourselves once again under the Law, to borrow Paul’s language. But here, as elsewhere, the Incarnation challenges us to reframe our thinking, and to abandon the familiar human paradigms to which we have been acculturated. Jesus invites us to approach God not as the austere judge we imagined him to be, but as “Abba, Father”.
We must remember that when we affirm that God loves every human soul, the divine "love" of which we speak does not amount merely to a mild "well-wishing" on His part, as if God merely prefers that sinners be saved. His love for each and every person is unfathomable in its depth and power—deeper than any conception of love of which we are capable, deeper even than any human parent’s love for their child.
When we are told by the well meaning, but misguided, ideologue that we do not “deserve” God’s love, we are implicitly being asked to relate to God according to the old paradigm. As creatures of renewed mind, however, we should adamantly refuse to do so. While I freely acknowledge, without hesitation, that I am a highly imperfect being, I must also acknowledge the simple fact that I am a child of God.
As His children, God isn't waiting for us to prove ourselves. He has loved us from before the foundation of the world. His love is, dare I say, our birthright. This is not due to any independent quality of our own, for in truth, we possess no independent qualities. We exist only in relation to Him. In Him we live, and move, and have our being. He is the ceaseless sustainer of our souls.
To be clear, to say that God’s love is our “birthright” is not to imply that we are entitled to an endless and uninterrupted stream of divine blessings. To the contrary, the Father disciplines those He loves (Hebrews 12:6). The giving of restorative chastisement is just as important an aspect of God’s divine Fatherhood as is the giving of good gifts.
This is, perhaps, the great controversy of creation alluded to in the parable of the workers in the vineyard: that God’s love is not a function of merit. In fact, God loves the most vulgar of sinners just as much as He does the most obedient of worshippers. That God would love all so equally—regardless of one’s moral standing—is a scandalizing truth which confronts our pride.
So then, we must not allow ourselves to speak of God’s love either as something to be “deserved” or “undeserved”, for in so doing we perpetuate a deeply erroneous, and all-to-human, conception of love. As God’s children, His love is our irrevocable and eternal birthright. It is not a function of merit, but rather relationship: God is our perfect and good Father, therefore we can know with confidence that He loves us.