The other day I was in a restaurant seated near a couple with a young son. He looked to be about two or three, and from all appearances, a rather unremarkable child. Not that there was anything apparently wrong with him; he just seemed...normal.
I note this because the entire time I was in the restaurant, the boy's parents were absolutely gushing about him. Whenever the waitress would come around, they'd point out some new extraordinary thing about the child--the way he ate, the things he liked, how smart he was, interesting (to them) aspects of his developing personality. To her credit, the waitress played along. Clearly, these parents were fond of their child.
I've noticed an interesting trend lately among some of my more progressive evangelical friends. These friends are intent on separating themselves from a certain theological strand that portrays God as a cold and unapproachable Judge, who requires Jesus to intercede for him in his dealings with humanity. On this view, it is true in a sense that God loves us, but his contact with us must be mediated through Jesus (who seems to be a bit softer), so as to avoid consuming us in his wrath. This view is summed up nicely in this colorful quote from a well-known pastor:
"You have been told that God is a loving, gracious, merciful, kind, compassionate, wonderful, and good sky fairy who runs a day care in the sky and has a bucket of suckers for everyone because we’re all good people. That is a lie…God looks down and says ‘I hate you, you are my enemy, and I will crush you,’ and we say that is deserved, right and just, and then God says ‘Because of Jesus I will love you and forgive you.’ This is a miracle." *
In other words, God "loves" us, but he certainly doesn't like us.
To counter this picture of God, I have noticed several of my friends beginning to talk about God liking us rather than loving us. And this is perfectly understandable. What they want to get across is that God feels very similarly to us as those parents mentioned above feel about their son. He's crazy about us. He can't help bragging about us to whoever will listen--even the most unremarkable of us. And he doesn't need anyone else to shield us from him. He's not afraid that he won't be able to resist devouring us in his anger. And he isn't so double-minded that he needs Jesus to keep reminding him that he's on our side. In short, he doesn't just "love" us—he really, really likes us too!
I find this shift in language fascinating. It is, so far as I can tell, the only significant social sphere where the meanings of “love” and “like” have been effectively inverted. The only other similar occurrence I can think of is within a family situation, when one might utter something like, “I love you [i.e. because we’re family], but I don’t have to like you.” Here too one sees the tendency to associate “like” with affection and fond feelings, while “love” is seen as something more like obligation.
This is reinforced by the tendency of many Christian teachers (myself included) to stress that love—especially the biblical kind—is not a feeling. It is, rather, a decision, a commitment to act in a certain way toward others, regardless of how they respond. And this, too, is certainly understandable, for not many words in our language have been more corrupted than “love.” For example, there is a real need to distinguish between divine love as described in John (agape) and the love that one feels for her iPhone. But I worry that in our zeal to hold up Christian love as something wholly other, we have allowed the misconception that it is somehow opposed to simple good feeling. It is of course true that affection is not necessary for Christian love, but it is also true that Christian love is not complete without affection. And this is a fact rarely acknowledged in evangelical circles. Bill Craig recently considered this point, and noted that “a full and mature love will involve a genuine affection for the other person.” The key here is the “full and mature” bit. So long as we merely tolerate the other (including the enemy), our love is not yet perfect.
I have two issues with all of this. The first is that it is often the same people who are concerned with proclaiming that God likes us who are also pointing out that love is not a feeling. I see a potential inconsistency here. On the one hand, love is associated with decision, as opposed to feeling. On the other, God’s love for us (presumably the paradigm of love itself) is described as being more associated with feeling than with obligation.
You see the problem? If we aren’t careful, we may appear double-minded to those trying to make sense of divine love. After all, how can God like us (i.e. feel affection for us) if love is not a feeling, and God is love?
The second issue I have is that in moving from using “love” language to “like” language, we seem to be ceding the definitional rights of these words to those who abuse them. In other words, why should we let bad theology (see quote above) dictate what “love” means? Of course, we can’t follow this path too far, because we (progressive evangelicals who believe God is fond of us) don’t have the right to make words mean what we want them to, either.
But we can at least insist that when we use the word “love” to talk about God, people are to understand that we mean he is both willing to save us, and that he is so filled with affection for us that he annoys his buddies with stories about all the mediocre things we do.
So my recommendation is this: if what we want people to understand about God is that he is excited to be in relationship with us—that the very thought of us gives him warm, tingly feelings—then let’s try to be consistent in our use of “love.” Don’t get caught up in the temptation to see Jesus’s love and God the Father’s love as different. They aren’t. Jesus is the expression of the Father’s love, not a concession to his better nature. **
* Charity dictates that I not mention the source of this disturbing quote, though many will likely guess it.
** Yes, you may quote this. :-)