Recently, as I was channel surfing in search of a British mystery, I chanced upon a televangelist asserting the wonder of God’s love as he exclaimed “God loves somebody like me.” The gist of his exclamation was that despite his sin, inherent in his humanity, God loved him. He did not deserved to be loved, but God reached out to save him. Accordingly, his listeners could be sure that if they repented of their sins and confessed Jesus as their savior, God would love them, too. For him, the point of the cross was to pay the debt for our sins and secure our salvation, reconciling us to a deity who prior to the cross hated not only the sin, but implicitly the sinner. After all, if God needs the death of Jesus to save you, God doesn’t really and truly love you without certain conditions being met: the substitutionary atonement on the cross and our coming to the mercy seat by placing our trust in Jesus. From this preacher’s perspective, it’s all about Calvary. On Calvary, Jesus “paid it all” and ransomed us from sin, damnation, and the wrath of God.
I have to admit I struggle with this ambiguity in God. It seems that God is ambivalent about his relationship to us. We are condemned apart from the cross and God cannot or will not do anything about it. Only the shedding of blood can save us. Even apart from the Girardian theory, there is something about such divine scapegoating that is existentially and theologically troubling. As loving as it seems at first, does God require his beloved son’s death to change his attitude toward us and reach out to sinners like us? Isn’t a relationship that constantly embraces – and even sacrifices – without condition and solely out of love superior to a love that requires conditions to be efficacious?
Now, I affirm the good faith of this television preacher and his affirmation of God’s amazing love. There is a power in human relationships that emerges when you realize that you didn’t have to be loved or accepted, but you are and that God could be arbitrary, indifferent, or vindictive toward us, but is not. To say “God loves somebody like me” despite my brokenness is to recognize the depth of grace. Forgiveness can transform your life. I affirm the amazing grace of God, but I believe God’s amazing grace depends on something even more primordial than the forgiveness of sin or a pivotal event such as the cross. Truly amazing grace reflects the unconditional and amazing love of God which brings forth creation and loves us, not just in spite, but because of who we are, we are God’s beloved children. This unconditional and eternal grace grounds primordial trust, the basic trust that we can trust the universe because God is trustworthy.
There are at least three ways Christians have proclaimed the wonders of God’s love. The first, somewhat problematic form, is the Pauline, Augustine, Lutheran, and revival approach. We deserve to be condemned but God reaches out to save us, bridging the gulf by Jesus’ death on the cross. Existentially speaking, it is life-transforming to experience such forgiveness and acceptance – radically and surprising hospitality – when you believe you don’t deserve it. But, this “love so amazing and so divine” doesn’t need the cross – it is built into the DNA of God and every truly loving parent. This is the fierce love that leaves no one behind, searches endlessly for a loss child, and is willing to die in place of a child. I felt that way when my own son was diagnosed with cancer and today I am willing to put my life at risk for my grandchildren. If God’s love requires some payment or sacrifice to efficacious, it is less noble than a parent or spouse/partner whose love sacrifices unconditionally. Sacrifice is part of love, but it is derivative and not mandated. Everything flows from love, everlasting, without beginning or end.
The second amazing affirmation of divine love is captured in the exclamation of the Psalmist:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4)
In the midst of a 125 to 500 billion galaxy universe, we matter and are written on the palms of the divine hands. There is no separation in the universe: size doesn’t matter; infinite or infinitesimal, we are the apple of God’s eye. Divine omnipresence means that God is present in a loving way everywhere! This is at the heart of Julian of Norwich’s vision of the hazelnut:
The Lord showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in
the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked
at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was
amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it would
suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It
lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being
through the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the
second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see
in it? That God is the Creator and the Protector and the Lover.
God loves hazelnuts and God loves you. All are embraced in divine love: God is the circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
Third, “God loves somebody like me” because I am God’s beloved child and this is everlasting and non-negotiable. I loved my son the day I learned he was conceived. I had the same love for my grandsons. I treasured them at conception, and they have become essential to my identity in that moment of knowing. There were no conditions and no limits – there were no “in spite of” feelings of distance – simply love for this evolving life. Before there was a cross, there was the love that brought forth the universe, evolved galaxies, and moved through each conception. God’s eye is on the sparrow, the lilies of the field, and us. Whether we walk beside God or have journeyed to a far country, God’s love cherishes us. “For God so loved the world” is not a second thought on God’s part; it is God’s primordial attitude toward creation from the very beginning of time (and our time) to this very moment and all that will follow. Yes, “God loves somebody like me.” We can trust the universe and be bold in our adventures, companioning God in bringing beauty to the world, because this love has no beginning, end, or conditions as it seeks to bring healing and beauty to our lives and the world.