This apparently bizarre question pops up over and over again in Christian worship and theology. It was posed to me recently by a friend and I promised to reply here.
It is a commonplace in Christian hymnody to disparage ourselves as a device to magnify the grace of God in saving us. “Would [Christ] devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” asks Isaac Watts, one of the best hymnwriters ever. In the same generation, Jonathan Edwards likens our souls to spiders that God holds over the hearth, barely able to restrain his disgust as he kindly spares us despite our repugnant natures. More recently, C. S. Lewis compares the act of God becoming human in Jesus with the act of a human being diving down into deep water to become a slug, and elsewhere (in Mere Christianity) he straightforwardly says, “really there is nothing else in us to love” besides our sheer selfhood—which Lewis fails to explain as a cause for God to love us. Clearly, there is a big “ick factor” here, a sense of repellence, that is supposed to underscore God’s generosity toward us.
The Apostle Paul takes a different tack:
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 [thoroughly] 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. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:6-10 TNIV)
This approach has always helped me make sense of the paradox of God’s love for us, bad as we are. One can coherently condemn one’s enemies for their faults, oppose their mischief, and resist them even to death, without judging them to be utterly without merit, completely devoid of anything admirable or even lovable. Many a story, in fact, revolves around the familiar phenomenon of, yes, love/hate relationships.
It seems more Biblically, experientially, and rationally sensible to me, then, to sort things out this way:
1. Despite the ravages of the Fall, of the effects of others’ influences on our lives, and of our own bad choices, we are not entirely devoid of the goodness of the image of God.
2. The second Great Commandment tells us to love others as we love ourselves. Presumably, then, our love for ourselves is not utterly groundless, completely out of keeping with the reality of our own unlovableness. (Lewis seems to get into psychological difficulty here in Mere Christianity as he says we automatically love ourselves just because we are ourselves, and this love is what we ought to emulate as we love others. But why would such an automatic love, if groundless, be justified? It sounds, at best, non-rational/reflexive, and even actually crazy if we are, in fact, bereft of lovable qualities. Lewis also fails to reckon with the widely reported phenomena of people hating themselves or, conversely, loving themselves because they consider themselves quite wonderful—neither of which case, I’m sure he would agree, is what the Commandment has in view. So what does proper self-love mean? That’s what we need to get straight.)
3. God loves the world (John 3:16 and many more verses, thank God!). Now perhaps God loves the world proleptically, anticipating how wonderful we will become, how truly lovable we will be once he has rescued us, restored us, and trained us in godliness. Maybe—but that doesn’t sound like God loves us present tense, but loves our future selves and puts up with us now as future-selves-in-the-making.
4. As I suggested in (2), Lewis points to how we love ourselves to indicate how we ought to love others. But what about turning that around? Certain other people love us, and we love at least certain other people, for what presumably are lovable traits.
Now here a theologian compelled to defend his presuppositions might retort that we are terrible creatures who love each other because of a terrible appreciation for terrible traits. God’s salvation will restore us both to true lovableness and to a proper appreciation of what is lovable.
(I have often been appalled by preachers who seem to believe that we praise God best by roundly condemning the creature he made in his image. I have detected, I think, more than a whiff of misanthropy in the air.)
Now, I agree that one of the effects of sin is to derange our values such that we can endorse sin and despise goodness. But completely? Are everyone’s values utterly perverted in every respect? If so, how could anyone come anywhere close to the gospel? Why would anyone seek out Jesus himself, as people clearly do in the gospels? Yes, “the Father draws them,” but they don’t seem to be miraculously attracted to traits that everyone else around them finds ridiculous or horrible. Jesus is widely admired, even if he isn’t understood, obeyed, or followed.
To me, it squares better with experience, reason, and Scripture (just for starters, Jesus loved the “beloved” discipline long before he was entirely sanctified; he clearly loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus who were not close to perfect; and he even looked on the rich, young ruler with love) to say that God has given us human beings enough of his goodness that we are, indeed, lovable.
5. Part of the confusion here might connect with the widespread misunderstanding that God’s love is entirely to be construed as selfless, as agap¯e, when God’s love is actually depicted in Scripture as ranging across the various forms of love described in the various Greek terms available: we are friends of God, the Bride of Christ, and so on. Jesus went to the Cross “for the joy set before him”: the joy of magnifying his Father, yes, but also the joy of redeeming those he loved (Hebrews 12:2). Now, to be sure, those he loved (namely, us) were sinners and therefore in some important sense repellent to him, as our loved ones are repellent to us when they sin. But those loved ones aren’t only and always repellent to us. Why should we think we are, or ever were, to God?
6. I listen to the testimony of friends and former students who work among society’s outcasts, people whom the rest of us tend to see as entirely unlovable. But most of those troubled people are lovable indeed in the eyes of those who get close to them. Likewise (and it is “likewise”), on the cruise ships on which I occasionally lecture, I visit sometimes with very rich people whom some of my friends and former students would be tempted to view as entirely unlovable. But after hiking and touring together and then visiting over dinner, the glittering façades sometimes come down and quite sweet, warm, human traits shine out instead. The proposition that every human being is entirely unlovable seems just wildly contrary to basic experience, even at society’s extremes.
7. I don’t mean at all to diminish the evil of very bad people. Satan himself appears to be beyond redemption in the Book of Revelation, as do his human associates and agents. But God’s consigning them to their just deserts does not mean that they are entirely evil and totally unlovable. Indeed, the frightening implication here is that persons who do retain lovable traits are yet heading for hell, and their lovableness must not distract us from their peril. We must evangelize everyone, not just obviously bad people who obviously need the gospel. For those who refuse God’s provision for their rescue will be, regretfully, left to their own devices, and their own devices will not suffice. They don’t suffice now to live as they ought; they won’t suffice then, either.
8. So I sing Brother Watts’s hymns with feeling, because sometimes I do feel like a worm: a senseless, ungrateful, stupid creature who is worse than a worm for being a human being choosing to act like a worm. It is amazing that Jesus would devote his life to me—just as it is amazing that my wife remains in our marriage and my sons haven’t long since left me behind. But I see such phrasing as the poetry it is, as focusing on an aspect of reality and vividly expressing it for this moment’s reflection and response. It isn’t all that needs to be said. To say what needs to be said discursively is theology’s job, and I hope I’ve said enough here to help us avoid at least some of the mistakes that surround this question.
What else needs to be said, do you think?