Many people imagine God looking for the lovely and then loving them. They see themselves as basically good, morally beautiful people and therefore, God's love is deserved. There is a problem though. That problem is that we are not, nor can we ever be, morally beautiful on our own. Hoping that God will look on us and love us because we are lovely ascribes attributes of human love to God and misunderstands the very nature of divine love.
Martin Luther understood this. The obscure monk from Wittenburg might have escaped the notice of history had it not been for October 31st, 1517. Luther, upset at the sale of indulgences (Papal absolution of sin purchased by individuals) walked up to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg and posted 95 thesis that he wanted to debate. Contrary to popular myth, Luther had no intention of starting the reformation. He simply wanted to have a scholarly debate on the matter, and therefore, posted the thesis in latin (which was only known by scholars). The thesis were subsequently translated to German and reprinted without Luther's knowledge which started a firestorm. The leader of the Augustinian Order, Johann Staupitz, called a meeting of the leaders of the order to Heidelberg to give Luther a chance to explain his thesis. This became known as the Heidelberg Disputation and for it, Luther penned the most beautiful and profound sentences he ever wrote.
The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which pleases it.
.Human love looks for beauty and then loves it. Love is a reaction to beauty, not the cause of it. We see something of excellence or beauty and the reaction or response is love. How many times have you heard a husband recount how he met his wife? "I saw her and she was the most lovely woman in the room, and I wanted to date her." We see beauty and respond with affection.
The same is true of art, architecture, writing, or a thousand other things in life. If you go to an art gallery and look around, you will see people admiring, even loving pieces of art. The reason is simple... they see beauty. Imagine you think that renaissance art is beautiful and you walk past someone admiring Picasso. Will you fall in love with a piece of art by Picasso? Only if you see beauty in it, and if you don't see beauty in "cubist" art, you will not love it. You might even respond with the opposite reaction.
Human love in general depends upon seeing beauty first, and the reaction is love. Even non physical beauty must first be apprehended in order to love. This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 5:7. The point Paul is making is that it is hard to find a human being that will die for a righteous person. Someone might die for a good person, but Paul is pessimistic. Humans are not willing to die for evil. There is nothing lovely about it.
This presents a unique problem for humanity. Moral beauty only comes from moral purity, excellence and perfection. The only morally beautiful being is God. He alone maintains moral perfection and excellence without failure. You and I fail... regularly. We often tend to think of ourselves as morally beautiful, and thus deserving of God's love, by comparing ourselves to others. "I haven't killed anyone, robbed a bank or cheated on my spouse, so I'm not that bad." We can also look at ourselves and see our imperfections, failures, and moral ugliness and respond by thinking "how could God ever love anyone as ugly as me?" It's like a teenager who despairs because they can't live up to the standard of beauty that society holds and therefore only sees their ugliness against that standard. That was Martin Luther.
Luther had no problem seeing his moral ugliness. He knew he was a sinner and that God was holy. He knew God demanded perfection, and so he tried to achieve that on his own through religious vigor that is unmatched. Staupitz, his confessor, would sit for hours hearing Luther recount the slightest sin, only to have him return moments later because he remembered another as he left. Luther struggled with this question... how can God love the unlovely? How can a being of moral perfection love the morally ugly?
The answer came when Luther discovered that God's love is not like human love. While human love is a reaction to loveliness, divine love is not a reaction to loveliness, but a cause of it. God loves us, and in loving us, we become lovely. Luther had been thinking of divine love in human terms. He had been ascribing to God the kind of experiencing of love that humans experience. "The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it." God doesn't scan the world looking for the morally lovely and then loving them. The loves the morally ugly and then in loving them, makes them lovely precisely because he loves them.
Paul expressed it this way in Romans 5:8 - "But God demonstrates his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." In verse 6, Paul characterized humanity as "weak" and "ungodly." In verse 8 he adds "sinners" to the list. The amazing truth of Romans 5:8 is that God loves unlovely people. We don't clean ourselves up and present ourselves to God to be loved. We are loved by God and in experiencing His love, demonstrated at the cross in giving his Son, we are changed. He says the same thing in Ephesians 5:25-27. Christ's love for his church is demonstrated in sacrificing himself for the church in order that he might cleanse her. The church didn't cleanse herself and then Christ loved her. It was the other way around.
The same thing is repeated in Ephesians 1:4-5. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons. Love caused God to act, and that love was not love as a result of moral beauty. He loves us because he loves us. He chose to love us, even in our filth.
Why did God choose Israel in the Old Testament? Was it because they were greater than other nations? More lovely? Deuteronomy 7:7-8 gives the answer. The reason God chose Israel is because he loved Israel and made promises. That is why he chose them and delivered them from Egypt. They didn't earn it and didn't deserve it. He loved them because he chose to love them.
Throw Down the Mirror
The reason we either doubt or feel entitled to God's love is because we are looking in a mirror. We see ourselves as either worthy and deserving of it by comparing ourselves to others, or we despair because in looking at ourselves, we see our moral ugliness and wonder if God can ever love us. Both are sin. Both are addressed in the gospel. In order to see rightly we must throw down the mirror and look to Christ where both are addressed.
If we are to compare ourselves to someone, it must be to Christ. He was morally beautiful. He had no imperfection, no stain of sin, no moral ugliness. Even on our best day, we fall short of that standard. By comparing ourselves to others, we miss the standard. The standard is Christ who perfectly honored and loved the Father. None of us meet that standard. Throwing down the mirror and looking to Christ humbles us. It puts us in our proper place before God. It reveals our moral ugliness as it truly is in contrast to God's moral excellence.
Should we then despair? Should we look at ourselves and see our moral ugliness wondering if God could ever love someone as wretched as me? When we throw down the mirror and look to Christ, we get the answer. God loves those in Christ because he loves them. That love is not earned or deserved and that is demonstrated on the cross where the sinless God-man gave himself up for sinners. When we trust in Christ, our sin is borne by him and paid for and his perfect track record is counted as ours. The beauty of the believer is not found in their moral achievement, but in Christ's achievement on their behalf, credited to them by faith. That is the only hope of God's unconditional love.
Seeing With New Eyes
Humans love what we see as lovely. The Holy Spirit gives us new eyes to see the loveliness of Christ. When God changes our hearts, we are given new eyes to behold the glory of God (2 Cor 3:117-18) and that glory is seen in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:4,6). Blinders are removed, sin is overcome, we behold beauty, and love the beauty we behold in Christ. This loving of Christ is only possible by experiencing God's love in the gospel (1 John 4:10,19). When we see we are loved by God, not because of our worthiness to be loved, but simply because he chose to love us, and we trust in Christ, we begin to experience God's love in a way that conforms us to be more like Christ. In a way where God's love creates that which is pleasing to it. Being born of God results in belief which leads to loving more and more in the same manner in which we were loved (1 John 5:1), and if we love God, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). It doesn't say that if we keep his commandments, he will love us. The obedience of a believer is a reaction to experiencing God's love that results in loving God which is seen in obedience from the heart (Romans 6:17).
The good news is that God loves his people in spite of their ugliness and in loving them, he sends his son to die for them, rescue them, redeem them, and reconcile them to him in a new relationship with a new heart that loves God because they see his loveliness. God's love does not function like human love. Human love is a reaction to beauty. The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it.
Jon is husband to Carlee, Papa to Finleigh, Ainsley, and Olivia, a pastor at Arbor Drive Community Church in York, Ne, and co-host of The Pastor Discussions Podcast