Some 800 years ago, a French abbot named Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “When we live free from trouble we are happy. … Then, when we suffer some calamity, some storm in our lives, we turn to God and ask his help, calling upon him in times of trouble. This is how we who only love ourselves first begin to love God. We will begin to love God even if it is for our own sake.”
We first love God because of what he can do for us. If we get from God what we want, then our love is warm and passionate, and we say that God is so good. But when we don’t get what we want from him, our love for him grows cold – and we begin to doubt his love for us. When we lose, suffer, fail or flounder, we start to wonder, “Does God really love me?”
It is quite natural then to think that God must want something from me. That is, I love God because of what he can do for me, and God loves me because of what I do for him. I give God obedience, purity and piety, and he gives me protection, peace or happiness – right?
When God called Moses to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, he appeared to Moses in a burning bush. The text tells us the bush was on fire but was not consumed. The fire did not need the bush for fuel. The fire could burn on its own quite well.
This is a picture of God’s relationship to humans. He doesn’t need us. He does not respond to our obedience, purity or piety with love. He does not need our morality, our money, our worship, our prayer or our love. If he needed anything from us, we would have leverage on God and his love for us would be prudent but conditional.
But the fire does not need the bush. God’s love originates from his own character. It is simply who he is. He loves because he loves. He doesn’t have to love, but he does. His love is not a response to our behavior; it is simply an eternal fact of the universe.
I often tell my children, “I love you, and there is nothing you could ever do to make me love you less.” My love for my children is not based on their obedience, their compliance, what they can do for me or some emotional need of mine that they can meet. My love for them is based simply on the fact that I am their father.
God’s love for us is not an obligation, as though he finds it inconvenient to love us. His love is a genuine feeling of affection. The prophet Zephaniah said he will take great delight in us, he will quiet us with his love, and he will rejoice over us with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17).
Of course, God’s love isn’t just a feeling. It’s also an action. The first letter of John tells us God demonstrated, enacted, showed forth his love in sending his Son Jesus to die for us so that we might live through him. And because he loved us first, we ought to love in return.
May we love the Lord, not because of what he can do for us, but because he first loved us.
May we be people who can say with Bernard of Clairvaux, “Give praise to the Lord for he is good, not because he is good to me, but because he is good.”
The Rev. Parker Bullard is senior minister at Poncha Springs Church of Christ.