How Can God Love Me?

By Victor Lee Austin

This sermon has a title that asks a question: “How can God love me?” Behind it is a question about God loving anything. You might think it’s a no-brainer; of course God loves the creation he made. Isn’t that what the Bible says? Let’s look.

You will not find the word love in the creation stories. Genesis does not say God loved the world that he made: he saw it and saw that it was very good, but he did not love it. Genesis does not go on to say God loved the man and the woman in the garden. Nor do we find love in the stories of the flood or the tower of Babel. We do not find love in the stories of Abraham, except once — in a context that shows love is no simple thing. The first instance of love in the canonical order of the Bible is this: God tells Abraham to sacrifice “thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest” (Gen. 22:2).

You might think: this is getting interesting. One wonders the effect upon Isaac of being almost sacrificed by his father who loved him; Isaac seems to have more need for love than any human being ever before. Isaac takes Rebekah as his wife, and we are told “he loved her” (24:67), and not much later we are told he loved his elder son: “Isaac loved Esau” (25:28). And unlike anyone else, Isaac also is said to have love for something, namely, “savory meat” (27:4, 9, 14) — which love plays in a famous deception scene.

Love continues in Genesis as something problematic. It is not through love that the patriarchal line continues: Isaac loves Esau, but the line goes through Jacob. Jacob loves Rachel, but the line goes through his other wife, Leah. Shechem, an outsider, loves Dinah, daughter of Jacob, and that leads to bloody violence. The Book of Genesis seems hesitant to speak of love, knows love only as something between humans (except for Isaac’s love of savory meat), and presents it as a source of strife or a sign of blindness. And to our question about God loving us, there is no word in Genesis of God loving in any sense.

Does the Bible think people can love God? Yes, but that too is slow to appear. The first inkling comes after Genesis, in Exodus. As God gives the commandment not to make graven images, he says he will show “mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:6). These words indicate that it is possible to love God, and that a large number, “thousands,” will do so. But after this one verse, there is nothing more about human love for God.

—Until we come to Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, where we find this: Moses tells the Israelites that God chose them “because he loved thy fathers” (Deut. 4:37). Deuteronomy thus tells us how to look back and interpret Genesis. Although in Genesis it is not spoken aloud, we should understand God as loving Abraham and Sarah — and Isaac and Jacob and so on. “He loved thy fathers,” Moses says. Then Deuteronomy in short order comes to the command, the famous command, to “love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (6:5).

Here’s the point. When the law comes in Exodus, we get the bare assertion that it is possible for us to love God. And when we get to the end of the law (Deuteronomy), we find a robust and reciprocal love: God loves us, and we totally can love God.

But remember: the Bible did not start off that way.

And so, in the fullness of time, a certain lawyer came to Jesus and asked him about inheriting eternal life. Jesus asked what was written in the law. He answered, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself. Jesus said that was a very good answer; This do, he told him, and thou shalt live.

But the lawyer wanted to show off his education and put Jesus on the spot, so he asked about the neighbor. Who is a neighbor? And then Jesus told that story we heard of the good Samaritan. It’s a great story. Originally it was probably about who recognized a fellow Jew. Since it’s the Samaritan, it speaks about recognition across difference. But the history of interpretation has made it a universal story. And as Jesus puts it at the end, it is not our job to figure out who is our neighbor, it’s our job (it’s the fulfilling of the law) for us to prove ourselves a neighbor.

I wonder, though: what if the lawyer hadn’t been trying to justify himself? Might he have then probed the first part of that two-fold love commandment, rather than the second? What if he had asked about what we saw in Deuteronomy? How can I love God? How can God love me?

It is one of the hardest questions of all.

Here is a guess about why Bible is careful not to speak of love too quickly, too easily, too casually. Before you can love somebody, you need to talk with them. Real love involves a relationship; and one of the conditions of a relationship is that the parties have (and work on) communication.

But just as authors and characters do not communicate with each other, even so creator and creature cannot talk. God could have been a creator but not a talker. However, according to what the Bible would show us, God is a talker. There was a beginning of speech in the garden of creation. The speaking goes on. Abraham turns out to be particularly important, because God puts himself on Abraham’s level, telling him about his plans and thus sharing with him what it means to care for people and to judge. Looking back, as Moses does in Deuteronomy, we can see that God in fact loved Abraham and Sarah, and all the other forebears of the people of Israel. Why do we say God loved them? We say God loved them because he talked to them.

God’s speech makes possible the two-way street of love. We can love God because God has spoken to us — a speech that establishes the communication which is the groundwork of love.

But you might think, that’s all very poetic and beautiful, Father, but God has never spoken to me. That’s a good point. I want, however, to say that God has spoken to you, has made it possible for you and him to have a relationship of love.

That man Jesus told about, who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road — there’s a sense in which he is not there for us to notice, but he is us. We are there, and our salvation is not that a Samaritan, an outsider in human terms, decided to prove himself our neighbor, but that our creator, the ultimate outsider, decided to prove himself our neighbor.

God decided to make himself a neighbor to us, and he did so by becoming a human being. While on this earth, he set up a temporary lodging for us, a place of washing and feeding, a place of wine and oil, a place of care, for all of which he has promised to pay the full price. And although he had then to leave us, he has promised to return.

Who has proved himself the neighbor of the human race? God, the only Son, one of whose names is the Word of God. Jesus, the Word of God, is our truest neighbor. God has spoken to you: in the provisions he has left in the Church, in his promises which we hear when we read the Bible, in the actions of his Son, who set his face toward Jerusalem and explained everything to us in this simple story of the good Samaritan.

When we first pose the question “How can God love me?” we feel our difference from God. We know we aren’t at all equal to God. We also suspect we really aren’t lovable, especially not by someone who is God. I am a sinner, Lord; I have thoughts and desires I wish I didn’t have, but they’re there; and there are things I’ve done. Do you really want to talk to me, to look at me? I think I’d rather make some clothes out of these fig leaves and hide away in this ditch.

But God arranged it that he would come over beside us, put healing oil on our wounds, make provision for our care. He went away, but he promised to return.

On the lips of Jesus, face set to Jerusalem the place of his departure, this story is about himself, God in the flesh, God who has pulled up beside us.

This is how God has loved us, and made it possible for us to love him.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is theologian in residence for the Diocese of Dallas and Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.

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