It’s rare that late night sparring matches with an atheist troll (though that’s metaphorical, how awesome would it be to actually spar with an atheist troll?!) can actually provoke meaningful thought, but on this occasion, it did. In a sweeping generalisation, I was presented with the opinion that everyone loves God for selfish reasons. Though I wasn’t taking the conversation particularly seriously, it struck me that the guy had a point. Given that the God of the Bible promises Heaven on Earth for all who believe in him, it must seem to many people on the outside that that is the prime motivation for anyone to love God. The obvious question with which to confront a Christian with, and the one that I asked myself that night, is this: “Would you still love God if there was no Heaven?”
Now, I’m sure we all like to believe that we would, but it’s worth considering and in this post I want to try and answer that question for myself by looking at why I love God at all. To start with, I want to think about why anyone loves anything. I’m sure that people a lot cleverer than I am have asked and answered this question before, but, for what it’s worth, my opinion is that love is tied to value. We love things because we see in them value enough to make that love worth it. Sometimes we might be mistaken in that value, and sometimes we might not even know what that value is, but we don’t love things that are completely worthless. Love highlights the good things in people. Recognising positives and love go hand in hand. The positives may be obvious, or they may be buried, but love finds them and takes joy in them.
As I spoke to God that night and considered this, something struck me – an idea suggested by my non-Christian A Level English teacher when we were studying a William Blake poem. With regards to Jesus’ command to “love your neighbour as yourself”, he said that surely this means you have to be able to love yourself first. When thinking about this issue, I realised how important that was to remember. I’m not talking about an arrogant, self-obsessed love, I’m talking about love in the sense that you recognise and appreciate your own value. This is important for relationships with both other people and with God.
In terms of relationships with other people, Jesus’ command is particularly relevant. Once you recognise the value in yourself, you should be able to recognise the value in other people and treat them accordingly. As a Christian, I believe that my value comes from God. Whether I do things right or wrong, I have value because God made me. Just take a second to stop and think of the thousands of processes going on in your body right now just to keep you alive. Respiration; circulation; digestion. Tell me that that doesn’t make you an amazing being. Then consider that you have the mental capacity to even consider yourself in that way at all. Doesn’t that make you even more amazing? Your value starts with your very existence, and that’s before we even think about the fact that God made everyone differently, with their own strengths. Psalm 139 is a great place to look for more of this sort of thing, but one of my favourite verses demonstrates the value that God sees in all of us; Matthew 6:26 says, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth more than they?”
Once you start to see things like this, you can see the value in others, even those who are completely different from you. Seeing things like this also helps our relationship with God, because the Bible makes it clear that our value comes from him. It is only natural to respond to someone who has created so much of worth and beauty with awe and wonder. But this does not necessarily amount to love, and this is where we need to come back to the Heaven thing. What this guy was missing out (or ignoring) was that the promise of Heaven isn’t as simple as a reward for Christians, it’s something that is pleasing to God as well. And humans existing in Heaven is only possible because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. God put himself through great pain in order that everyone should have the possibility of enjoying the fullness of creation.
For me, his willingness to do that is what turns awe and wonder into love. I don’t love him because loving him gets me into Heaven, I love him because he was willing to do what was necessary to be with whoever wants to be with him. What’s more, all of this ignores the fact that when you get to know him more, once you start that relationship, the love just grows. You see the unquantifiable value in him and it’s captivating.
As a final point, let us not forget that love for someone else, by its very nature involves two entities; you and the one you love. This makes it impossible for love for someone else to be a completely selfish thing. You do not love someone for your benefit (though it might have benefits for you) you love them for their benefit. Because it’s good to be loved, whether you’re God or human. This is why, if you truly love God, that love can never be called selfish.