For God So Liked the World

Continuing from my last post on liking and loving...

If you ask Christians to succinctly define God's agape my guess is that the most common definition would be "unconditional love." Consequently, Christians feel called to live out this unconditional love for the world. As the bible says, "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." We didn't have to get it all right before Christ, the Incarnation of God's Love, would embrace us and forgive us. As Jesus prayed on the cross for those who killed him: "Father, forgive them."

In my last post, following the thoughts of James Alison in his book On Being Liked, I suggested that liking, rather than loving, might be the higher calling for Christians. That liking might be a better reflection of agape than loving, as least as "loving" is commonly practiced among Christians. So I called for Christians to start liking the world.

Now here's the interesting thing about this suggestion. Namely, it feels too promiscuous, too inclusive. Think about that. What has gone wrong in our expressions of agape when we feel that liking is more gracious, more hospitable, more unconditional than love? Why does love feel exclusive while liking feels inclusive?

I think the answer is that liking seems to capture the notion of "unconditionality" better than love. If so, we see once again how liking is a better translation of agape. Consider. If I ask you to like the world the request seems overwhelming. It's too big, too extravagant, too inclusive. Note in this how liking gets after the gracious extravagance and unconditionality of agape. To like involves finding pleasure in people, as "occasions of joy" to use a phrase from Rowan Williams, as they are, right now. When I like you, I like you.

By contrast, when Christians say they love the world they often conjure up a sentiment that is much more narrow, something less gracious and more demanding. They conjure up an affection that is largely conditional. Specifically, when many Christians say they love you what they really mean is that they want to change you. They don't love your current self, they love the self you should, could, or ought to be. This is why outsiders find the "love" of Christians so chilly. Christian love isn't unconditional. It's got strings attached.

And this is where I think the push back will come when I suggest we should like, rather than love, the world. Liking the world, as it is, seems too nonjudgmental. The fear is that in liking the world we won't push the world to change. Because that's what the world really needs, a push. That's Christian love: A shove toward God.

The trouble with this sentiment, as should be obvious, is that we've lost track of God's unconditional agape in Christ. We're not loving the world while they are yet sinners. Which is to say, we aren't liking the world. And without that liking all you are left with is the shove.

Here is James Alison on this point:

I think we would be wise to send the word 'love' to the laundry and use the word 'like' instead...the word 'like' is rather more difficult to twist into a lie than the word 'love', because we know when someone likes us. We can tell because they enjoy being with us, alongside us, want to share our time and company. Well, what I would like to suggest is that if our understanding of being loved does not include being liked, or a least being prepared to learn to be liked, then there's a good chance that we're talking about the sort of love that can slip a double bind over us, that is saying to us 'My love for you means that I like you if you become someone else.'

It seems to me that the doctrine of the incarnation of our Lord, the image of God coming among us as the likeness of humans, is a strong statement that the divine regard is one of liking us, here and now, as we are. Glad to be with us. And this means that the one who looks at us with love is not just looking at us with a penetrating and inscrutable gaze of utter otherness, but is looking at us with the delight of one who enjoys our company, who wants to be one with us, to share in something with us.
All this might sound way too theoretical. So let me end on a pragmatic and missional note.

Think of a coworker you don't like. Do you, in a Christian sense, love him or her? Many Christians would say, "Yes I do." No doubt, this is a thin sort of love, and that's kind of my point. As Alison suggests, the word love has lost its meaning. So let's ditch it and replace it, following Alison, with the word like. So, do you like this coworker? The answer is no, no you do not. But what if I convinced you that God is calling you not to love but to like your coworker? How might following that command--Thou shalt like thy coworker--affect your behavior? Well, you'd likely start by trying to talk to her more. Invite her over to dinner. Find a shared interest or activity to spend time together.

But here's when the breakthrough would likely occur. Eventually, if you kept at it and time passes, something will happen to this coworker. Something bad. A death, a job loss, a divorce. And she will call you one night, crying. And you'll see this coworker emotionally exposed before you. Broken. Lost. Alone. And in that moment you'll see, perhaps for the first time, the person God sees. You'll see with the eyes of agape. And your heart will melt, if only for an instant. You'll find, against all odds, that you are experiencing the strangest feeling. Afterward, you'll come home and see your spouse who will wonder aloud why you spend so much time with this coworker. And you'll find yourself saying...

"I don't know. I just like her."

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3 thoughts on “For God So Liked the World”

  1. I think Patricia's note about the chore quality of "obligated love" captures well, the Evangelical voice when it comes to communicating their relationship not only to the rest of us, but to God as well.

    I might push her idea further and describe the Evangelical sense of uniting with God as a shotgun wedding.

  2. I am loving--no, liking--this series! I was re-reading the 4th installment in the series on 'Sticky Theology' yesterday, on 'Bivalent Thinking.' For me, when there is some friction with another person, either a disagreement or personality trait that rubs me the wrong way, my instinct is to avoid them. What if...I can think of one thing that I like about such a person, and affirm that in my own mind and in my interactions with that person? I would hope for another person to see the good in me in this way, in spite of any difference(s).

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