Are You Lovable?

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?


16 Responses to “Are You Lovable?”

  1. Matt

    Hi John,

    Thank you for this thoughtful response. I think that it would be helpful to include the incarnation and resurrection in this discussion – the fact that God dwells in this fractured creation with an aim of redeeming it, as per Romans 8. The dwelling of God in humankind in order to produce a New Adam, seems to indicate at least some goodness in our current reality. This is taken a step further in the resurrection which strikes the match and sets an example for complete healing of the cosmos.

    Be well,

    • John

      I didn’t go that way, Brother Matt, because Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection and so on all can be used (and are used) to support the view set out in (3). So they don’t, for me, help resolve this particular question but rather, once it has been resolved, add specificity and, indeed, glory to the narrative of God’s love for us.

  2. Poetreehugger

    I don’t know if I have ever been bothered (in a negative way, as opposed to the positive way where I feel pressured to do something I know I should do but don’t want to do, for example) by something you wrote before. But your point #7 has left me sad, confused, and a little disconcerted.
    If people with “lovable traits” may be destined for hell, who then can be saved? A lot of people who do not identify themselves with Christ seem to live more Christ-like lives than some of “us” who call ourselves Christians, meaning they live out CHRIST’S message without realizing they do so. When you mention “those who refuse God’s provision for their rescue”, how is this even defined? Is there a moment in everyone’s life (in this world or the next) where we get a clear view of Who is extending that purely loving hand of rescue, or are some people doomed to hell because they refused the “invitation” because the preacher extending it is an extremely unloving sort (for example)? I use the quotation marks around “us” because I am confused also by the “us” and “them” attitude in point 7.
    Part of my problem I guess is my recent realization that I find it hard to imagine any person that I would be okay with ending in hell. I imagine Christ could be only more loving than my mother heart in this, as I realized this when I looked at everyone as being somebody’s beloved child at one time.

    I find it difficult to find words to express these thoughts, so I doubt that this post will fully make sense.
    I respect your theology and love your proper grammar, word use and sentence structure. It is a joy to a reading-lover such as myself to read quality writing like yours.

    • Charles

      Those who are destined to hell are not in that state because they refused God’s provision, but rather they sinned against him. And the punishment of a crime is proportional to the worthiness of the one offended. I think Dr. Stackhouse’s point in #7 is that “lovable traits” seen against the holiness and glory of God becomes irrelevant and meaningless. We must have a provision in order to be saved. You must have a clear understanding (heart & mind) of sin, what it is, who it applies to, who is offended, the gravity of the situation, in order to understand the provision and the summons being called from the throne of God to be saved.

    • Daniel

      Well, Poetreehugger, this is precisely what makes God’s grace a necessary requirement for salvation. Many who hear do reject the Gospel for one reason or another: 1) seeing the hypocrisy in those who call themselves believers in the Gospel and therefore finding no evidence of the power of a transformed life that the Gospel promises, 2) being unable to bring them themselves to believe in something that they don’t completely understand already in one point or another, whether minor or major, even though it’s a true proposition, 3) being unwilling commit themselves to the implications that the Gospel and the corpus of Scripture have for their lives and of God’s ultimate authority over everything, including themselves and their moral choices.

      It is a sad fact that otherwise good people do go to Hell by our standards because God’s requirements for holiness are much higher than our own. I chafe when people tell me what a good guy I am because I know myself to be a sinner, rebelling against the particular calling that God has given me. On the one hand, I appreciate the recognition of my comparitive virtues; but, on the other hand, I know that my comparitive virtues do not come solely from my own efforts nor from what I’ve earned, and I know that comparitively I do not measure up to the ultimate standard of the holiness of God, the source and definition of all goodness. That’s why I need the grace of being saved through faith in the Gospel.

      • Daniel

        Charles has a good point as well that I forgot to mention. Another proposition in the orthodoxy of Christianity is that Hell is the default destiny of the entire human race, with the exception of the morally perfect God-man Jesus, because of our fallen state of original sin and because we prove ourselves to be sinners by what we do.

  3. Poetreehugger

    I guess there is something that bothers me about “Hell is the default destiny of the entire human race” (the human race created by God), for whatever reason, because it does not fit with the depiction of God as the loving father of the prodigal son, a father who runs out TO the son before the son has apologized, or expressed repentance. Or as the shepherd out searching for the lost sheep, and not declaring “that sheep is lost because it turned its back and went its own way.”
    I guess I see the grace of God surpassing our fixation with deserved punishment (especially for “them”, the ones who are not with “us”).
    On another, but I think related point, in #5, “as our loved ones are repellent to us when they sin” has not ever been my experience as the mother of four adult children. Rather, I have been overjoyed to discover that far from being repelled, my love for them has remained solid when I have heard about something in their lives that might be called “sin”. It is one of those many lessons we learn about God”s love from the (surely lesser) love we bear for dear ones in this life.

    • Daniel

      Even the most loving father would not be a truly loving father if he didn’t provide discipline (which includes just punishment) and correction for his children’s disobedience. But the parable of the prodigal son is a true snapshot or abstract slice of God’s character also: that He seeks our restoration to communion with Him. In Scripture, you have a good God who clearly does both — punishing and exiling evil as well as seeking and saving the lost. The difficulty for us — including myself, I admit — is the apparent contradiction between absolute mercy and absolute justice, which both ultimately derive their definitions from God’s character and nature.

  4. John


    I’m glad you’re distressed about hell and especially about the prospect of people you like or love making their way there. If we’re not distressed about that, we’re not paying attention to one of the key themes of the Bible: judgment–the making right of all things.

    I don’t see sufficient evidence in Scripture, or in experience or logic, either, to believe in universalism–the doctrine that everyone will eventually be reconciled to God. I see more than sufficient evidence instead that some people will not be reconciled and so will have to face their just deserts alone, without God, the only God there is and the God with whom they refused to ally themselves.

    People who make that choice, I’m saying, can yet be funny, or charming, or kind to their families or animals. They are not completely, horribly evil. But what they aren’t is saved–saved by the Power greater than themselves that is the only Power sufficient to rescue us from the downward trend of sin. And until they’re saved, they’re doomed, because funniness or charm or kindness in part isn’t enough: perfection is enough, and perfection isn’t among the possible achievements of any of us, as I expect you’d agree.

    As for finding my kids repellent sometimes, it’s nice that you have never had that feeling. Others of us have (“If that kid bullies his brother or sneers at me one more time, I swear…”), and we love them anyway!

    If you haven’t heard my lecture on Hell and the Goodness of God, available for free on Regent Audio, I invite you to give it a (long-ish) listen….

  5. RegentTim

    For those interested in listening to John’s lecture on Hell and the Goodness of God, it is available here at Regent Audio –

    For those interested in hearing John Stackhouse among a wide host of other perspectives and opinions on Hell, consider going to Hellbound the movie – Hellbound is a new documentary film that will be playing here in Vancouver, one night only, on Friday, October 12 at the Cineplex Odeon International Village and at the Colossus Langley Cinemas.

    • John

      You won’t hear me in “Hellbound,” though. I ended up, as I almost invariably do, on the cutting room floor…

      • RegentTim

        Even with our beloved Professor Stackhouse on the cutting room floor we can still be proud of the sound design for the film, done by Regent College alumni Murray Stiller.

    • Kevin Miller

      Tim: We are actually opening in Vancouver and Langley on Oct. 12. It’s a minimum one-week run, not a one-night only affair. However, I will be doing Q&A at the 7pm screening in Vancouver on Oct. 12 and in Langley on Oct. 13.

  6. Alastair Rees-Thomas

    Psalm 8:3-4 encourages me:
    “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him”

    Emphasis on the “is”: What IS man etc. Rather than being a disparaging remark about man ( who is this worm that you would care for him) David is in a state of wonder about the nature of man that leads God to care for him/her. Having considered all the heavenly creation and the work of God’s fingers, David asks the question: Why is man so important in the created order? Why is man set above all the rest of creation? What is it about man that causes you God to care especially for him/her?

    This passage is cited in Heb 2:6 – and the context is the supremacy of Christ above all creation.

    So my take is that there is something incredibly worthy about man/woman that causes God to give up that which is dearest and closest to Him to redeem that which is farthest from Him.

    My two cents worth (or not!)



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