God’s Love Comes First
Posted on July 30, 2018 | Posted by Annie Saunders
A month or so ago Kristen and I went to see the movie about Mr. Rogers. It was really good. It was moving and funny. And I learned a lot, too. For example, did you know that Rogers’ first name is Fred! Growing up I always assumed it was Mister, or that he didn’t have a first name at all.
I also learned that about 10 years ago Mr. Rogers – sorry I just can’t call him Fred – Mr. Rogers faced some unique criticism. Different than any he faced in his career. Pundits – which I’ve come to learn are people whose opinions are respected despite a lack of qualifications – pundits were complaining about a sense of entitlement among the youth in our country.
And then some began to say this was, in part, Mr. Roger’s fault. See, on his television show for 3 and 4 year olds, over and over Mr. Rogers would tell children that they are loved, not for anything they do, but just the way they are. He said this to boys and girls, rich kids and poor kids, black kids and white kids and brown kids, disabled kids and abled kids. Every kid. You are special, you are loved just the way you are. And this, according to the pundits, furthered the problem of narcissism and that most dirty of words: entitlement. Mr. Rogers’ TV program, the talking heads declared, has led to a generation of children who believe they deserved to be loved, that they were already loved. That they were entitled to be loved.
And oh, how I wish those pundits were right. Oh, how I wish that a whole generation of people believed they were entitled to being loved, whether or not it was Mr. Roger’s doing. But I just don’t think they do. I just don’t think we believe that.
Theologically, this is one of the most debated ideas of our faith. Which is odd, given how central it is. I remember hearing this argument way back when I was in high school. I was sitting in the courtyard at Palmer when classmate made this complaint. The problem with Christianity, he was saying, or at least with our flavor of Christianity that proclaimed unconditional love and grace. The problem is we don’t have to do anything. If the prize is already given, then why run the race? (Apparently we had unique lunch conversations in high school.) Someone heard this and said, “wait, you mean you can be a jerk your whole life and then confess at the end God will just forgive you and love you.” “Um, yep” I said. “Well, what’s the point of that?!” I didn’t have the heart to tell them that even if we don’t repent, even if you never know about God or confess faith in God, I’m pretty sure God still loves you. Or maybe it wasn’t that I didn’t have the heart to say it, maybe I didn’t have the guts.
See, in our heads, we don’t want it to be true. We bristle at the idea of unconditional. You’ve got to do something, we think. It’s part of our culture, maybe. Or part of our experience. Work hard, and get rewarded. So the idea that we are loved not for doing anything in particular. The idea that even those people who drive us nuts, those people who are evil. The idea that God loves even them! That Mr. Rogers idea, that we are loved just the way we are. That bugs us. It’s why talking heads on TV can get mad at a guy in a cardigan. With our heads, we don’t want it to be true.
Our hearts are a different story. Our hearts want this to be true more than anything, but just can’t believe it. We struggle to know that we are loved. Or, we may know that we are loved, but we always wonder what that love rests upon. What deed or misdeed will cause it to crumble?
What if you don’t call your mom on mother’s day? What if you don’t give your kid that toy that every other kid has? What if you don’t help your neighbor move the new furniture, even after he helped you out last year? Will they still love you?
What if you cheat on your spouse? Or what if you just sort of stop showing affection? Will they still love you? Maybe. What if you don’t amount to much, and your parents’ investment in your education and character seems wasted – Will their love for you remain as strong? Maybe.
What if you stop praying? What if you stop being generous? What if you aren’t the model Christian? What if you aren’t so sure about faith? What if, after five Sundays listening to sermons on First John, you still need to peek at the Table of Contents to find it in your Bible? What if you first have to find your Bible? What if it’s bigger than that? What if you carry a shame you wouldn’t dare mention, even in your prayers, which might be why you don’t pray? Does God still love you? Does God still love you as much?
We hope so. In our hearts we want it to be true for ourselves, even if we aren’t sold on the idea more generally. But we want to believe that at least God loves me in that Mr. Rogers way. But, it’s hard, you know.
And so we read today: God is love. When writing those words, this little essay we call 1 John isn’t addressing the same question, the same wrestling that I am. Instead, the authors were trying to convince their community to just love each other. But I kind of feel like we’ve covered that the past few weeks. And I feel like we know we’re supposed to love each other. The harder thing, I think, is believing that we are loved, or believing that we should believe that we are loved. But then there’s this strange statement: God is love. Right there in the Bible. God is love. So, what does that mean?
I think when they said God is love, they weren’t saying God is love the idea, or the concept, or the feeling. That’s too abstract. Doesn’t work with the rest of scripture. An idea can’t create the world. An emotion can’t call Abraham to a journey. A concept can’t split the sea and rain manna down from heaven become a person born in a manger and turn water to wine and die and rise again. God is not the abstract experience of love. That’s a little too hippie-dippy, to use a technical term admired in our house.
I think, instead, when they say God is love, they’re saying that love is a central characteristic of God. Love is a basic truth of who God is. Love is part of what it means for God to be God. A bigger and more important part than anything else. A bigger part of God than power or wisdom or glory or goodness. If God isn’t loving, then God isn’t really God, because God is always loving. Love, God’s love, is primary. It is foundational. So much rests upon it, but it doesn’t rest on anything. That’s what a foundation is. For God, love comes first.
God is also angry, sometimes. God gets weary, sometimes. God is creative, most of the time. God is gracious, all of the time. God may even be humorous, resentful, frustrated, or joyful. But all of these are built on love. All of these flow from the central truth that God loves.
Love comes first. Which means that God loves you. Just the way you are. And if that makes you feel entitled to being loved. If that makes you feel entitled to God’s love, like you get it no matter what, like there’s nothing that can take it away, like it was given to you for no reason at all, but it’s yours nonetheless. If you believe that you are entitled to God’s love, well, then God is probably just tickled pink. Because it’s true, and God would want nothing more than for you to believe always and forever that you are loved.
So, what then of the conundrum posed in the Palmer courtyard over lunch? That if we are loved unconditionally and from the start then we won’t ever feel compelled to do anything good. What do we say to that? Or, what of the complaint issued by pundits – that an entire generation has become narcissistic and lazy because they believe that are entitled to love? What about that?
Well, to be frank, as far as I’m concerned it’s all nonsense. Sure there is rampant narcissism in our world. Sure it seems we are selfish and pushed more and more to be selfish. But I don’t think it affects only one generation, and I certainly don’t think it has anything to do with believing we are entitled to being loved. We’ve been selfish long before we believed God loves us.
And as far as the motivation for doing good in this world, or being a good person, or being faithful. As far as that question posed over lunch back in high school – that sense that if we knew we were loved we’d never do anything. Nah! I think the opposite is true. I think that when we really believe we are loved by God just the way we are. I think when we really believe that it is God’s central character to love, that God can do nothing but love us. When you really believe that God loves you. In those brief moments I think you are motivated more than any other time. Because we’re then free from earning love. Because we know that love is possible. Because we want to share what we experience. Because if love is first for God then maybe it can be for us, too.
No kid ever watched Mr. Rogers change his shoes and tell them that they are loved just for who they are. No kid ever finished that show, turned off the TV, and said “whew! Well, in that case, let’s create some mayhem!” No. But maybe they felt a compulsion to be kind. Maybe they told their sister that she is loved just the way she is. Maybe they believed that about themselves, and then also about everyone else, too.
I believe that being loved is a far better motivator than seeking love. But even if it isn’t. Even if I’m wrong. Even if, by loving you, God has spoiled you and left you narcissistic and entitled. Even if you become complacent and lazy in God’s love. Even then, God loves you. Because that’s just who God is. God can’t help it. God loves you. Always will. Always. And God wants you to know it. If God could sit down right next to you, I think God would say something like: I love you just the way you are. And then maybe God would sing a song hoping we’d share in the sentiment:
“I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you. So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day. Since we’re together we might as well say: would you be mine, could you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor.” Amen.
–Pr. Daniel Smith