This question recently came up among some of my friends on Facebook, and could have been easy to gloss over. But the question is deep, and speaks to all of us throughout all our lives, whether we realize it or not. It becomes the question of “who am I really, at root?” and “what is humanity?” and, if you believe in him, “who is God and how does he relate to us?”
Now, you may not believe in God or call yourself a Christian, and that’s fine. If so, quite frankly, I don’t blame you. However, I do believe that it is through Christ that the roots of true existence are found (though what I mean by Christianity may be a much different picture than what comes to your mind), and so it would be hard for me to fully and fairly treat such topics as this post is about without including the divine. It doesn’t stop there, as, for example, if it can be shown that we deserve God’s love, then it certainly follows that we owe love to one another. Parts of my faith will make it into some of my blog posts now and then, but that hardly means you’re getting tricked into reading some series of theological dissertations (you aren’t – well this post will be the closest it gets but I think you’ll find it readable and relatable, or at the very least, interesting), so please bear with me.
But back to the question, “do you deserve to be loved,” first be honest with yourself: what do you think? Why? For some it might seem easy to say “yes, of course, I am an equal member of the human race,” and for others it might seem obvious that the answer is “no, I am a sinner but I’m grateful to be loved nonetheless.”
Maybe it’s natural for me to take the latter view as my starting point, since that’s more or less what I grew up with. And I get it, I do. I know the verses. The basic tenant is that we are born in sin, wholly entrapped within it, and therefore incapable of doing anything truly worthy of God’s love (and hence even apparent good deeds are always clouded by some selfish motivation). Perhaps surprisingly enough, this condition is usually applied (or at least implied) by proponents equally to fellow Christians as well as to non-Christians. And it’s obvious from looking around, and looking at ourselves, that there are a lot of problems with people and we’re far from perfect. There’s a lot of wisdom in recognizing our own faults. And that view – which I term the “fundamentally sinners and impossible to be deserving” view – seems good and wise because of its humility and because of the fact that there is some real truth behind it. But it’s incomplete. It misses so much.
Let me ask a few more questions: Does a child deserve her parent’s love? Why are we indignant when we learn of children who are rejected, mistreated, or abused by their parents – is it not because we know that the child has a right to – yes, even deserves – the parents’ love? Or should we be glad in such situations – are they, really, getting what they deserve? These are important questions not to gloss over, and may be justly causing some cognitive dissonance for those who are honestly asking them while holding to a “fundamentally sinners” viewpoint.
We are called God’s children. And there is one sense in which children are certainly not deserving of their parent’s love – they don’t earn it in exchange for what they can do for the benefit of their parents. I think that’s what the parable of the “unworthy servants” is about (as well as a lot of other references in the Bible to “while we were still sinners” and such). The parable in question is in relation to the themes of work and obedience. Countering what may have been the predominant spirit of the day, Jesus is basically saying, “no, you don’t serve God so you can get a feast, power, or prestige in return. You serve God because it is the right thing to do, a way of life that is proper.” It’s more about a position than a bargain. Relationship is not based on performance. This also can be seen in the analogy of the child, as a child does not earn her dinner from her parents through mercenary activity, and of course in this sense the child may be completely undeserving. But does that mean she is completely undeserving of her parents’ love, period? I hope no one would say so.
While it is often taught that we become God’s children by being saved, and this may be true in a sense, the truth underlying it that often gets missed is that we are originally God’s children by nature, and we can choose whether to live according to that relationship or to reject it. Even a child who disowns his parents can never completely be severed from his parents’ love. From the moment God said, “let us make mankind in our image,” we were worthy of His love, not because of what we have done, but because of the nature of the relationship.
Jesus says more than once that we have “much” value. Dwell on that for a while. Where does that value come from – does it come from what we accomplish for him (does God need our help, therefore he values us being around), or is that value intrinsic in who we are and the nature of our relationship to the divine? We are created in God’s image – which doesn’t mean we look like him (who is spirit), but rather that we have the same nature. We share in the divine (resulting in Jesus reaffirming that we are “gods,” and the concept known as Theosis). That divine image can become blurred by evil, but evil cannot remove it. It is still there in every person. If God has value, then to whatever extent we share in his nature, we have value.
When Paul and Barnabas speak in Antioch, who do they condemn, those who deem themselves worthy of eternal life or those who deem themselves unworthy? Let that sink in. Why would it be wrong to judge ourselves unworthy, if that’s what we deserve? The problem is that God says we are worthy – and to reject that truth, to reject his love, is wrong. You were worth it to Jesus amidst his suffering. God is the one who made you in the first place, and hence as is reflected in the parent-child analogy, I find it impossible to believe it could be right for him to not love you (besides the implications of your sharing in the love-worthy divine nature).
What about gifts? Doesn’t God give us gifts, and doesn’t that mean they aren’t deserved? Partially – they are not always deserved in terms of our actions (though they may sometimes be – we’ll revisit this shortly). But a term often used in the Bible is inheritance (often referring to eternal life in union with God). An inheritance is a gift, but a gift one is entitled to. If you are a beneficiary and someone else tries to take your inheritance, you can sue them in court because you are entitled to it. The father still gives the prodigal son the inheritance, though we, like Esau, can choose to reject it. But God does not want for any of us to reject the inheritance – we are told to lay claim to it, to make it our own, because it is rightfully ours.
Here’s another take: Paul writes that he prays that his readers would be “worthy” of God’s calling. Now “calling” and “love” are not synonymous, but I would argue that the former requires a more restrictive standard than the latter. An unskilled but loyal private may not be worthy of a promotion to the “calling” of lieutenant, but still be very worthy of his comrades’ (and superiors’) love. Paul at least indicates that it is possible to be worthy of a high calling, though not all necessarily are yet worthy. It would only seem worth his time to pen this encouragement if he is talking about life in the here and now, but even if he is talking about a life after death, the point remains. God exists outside of time. If we are being made worthy, then who we will be for most of our lives (eternity) – our truest self in truest form – perfected according to the image of Christ and “worthy of His calling” – is all as real to Him, if not more so, than what we have experienced so far. The temporal limitations of our vision cloud our view of ourselves. The veil that lies over the earth will be removed, and not only will we see God for who he is, we will also see ourselves for who we are in all our glory, and be amazed, for we will be like God. As Lewis wrote, “you have never talked to a mere mortal:”
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feelings for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner – no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses … for in him also Christ ‘vere latitat’ – the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.” – C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Of course, this all is only because our life itself, our nature, and our goodness proceed from God and his grace. But that is exactly the point. It is because we are from God, of God, and in God that we are good and worthy. And God became man to complete this process which sin had marred – so that we could become like Him, which is how he made us to be all along.
I’ve heard it said that gratitude is better than a feeling of entitlement, so shouldn’t we be thankful for what we don’t deserve, rather than say we deserve it? First of all, the two concepts need not be mutually exclusive: one can be entitled to an inheritance, but that does not mean he must be ungrateful for it. But the most obvious problem with this line of thought is its lack of logic – feelings don’t create facts. The facts lie as they are. We are who God made us. Whether we choose to respond with gratitude or snobbery is up to us. Shouldn’t we be allowed to be grateful for who we are? Isn’t that itself an amazing act of God’s love to which gratitude is the proper response?
Part of all this may come down to how one views the nature of love – is love something that can or should only be given to moral equals or betters? Does one have to be perfect to deserve love? If so, God could only truly love Himself, and any love he has for us might be some sort of strange anomaly in the love realms. Or is love, in its best and most perfect form, given equally to those “below” as well as to those “above,” with no qualms as to how each may have performed, since all are considered worthy? Jumping back to the analogy of a child deserving her parent’s love, someone might try to argue that this is only a specific case and that it can’t be extrapolated that the child is ultimately worthy of love, period, including from God. But can’t it be? If not, wouldn’t that require holding the human parent to a more perfect standard of love than the divine parent?
But more than this, I think a lot of it comes down to how one views the fundamental nature of humanity. Are we hopelessly warped and completely depraved parasites, washed up on the shores of God’s kingdom as hapless foreigners with no claim whatsoever to any good thing, not even a glance from his condescending eyes? Or are we eternal beings proceeding from Eternal Love and Perfection, sharing in his life as created children – in whom, even though born with a fallen nature, the true nature has not lost its goodness – in whom both are present, but the latter is more original, more central, and more fundamental – and who can choose, each moment, whether to accept the evil at hand or to accept the inheritance, calling, and love that we were created for and that is offered to every one of us? I’ve heard it said from behind the pulpit that infants are “rebels” and “manipulative” from birth; the speaker then actually went on to hold up his infant grandson (who along with his parents were present) as “proof” of what he was talking about. Aside from the question of how it could be possible to be manipulative without knowing social norms, I think Jesus would have something to say about this.
Further, aside from the question of innate or fundamental goodness in our nature, practically I just don’t subscribe to the worldview of seeing everyone as depraved sinners who may try to look good but secretly have selfish motivations or evil agendas behind everything they do. While I’m not saying people are perfect, I am saying I believe that, even purely from a standpoint of worthiness based on deeds, people are not as utterly undeserving of good things (including love) as the religious establishment often makes them out to be. Yes, there is a lot of evil in the world. But I see a lot more good. I see a lot of people – whether Christian or not – who really, genuinely love others and work for good in the world. Maybe some people can’t see this, but I see it there and it’s real. Having this paradigm shift – opening my eyes to seeing the good in people as real and valid and more fundamental than the evil in them – has been a truly transformative and liberating change for me. For every terrorist attack or corporate embezzlement there are a thousand acts of neighborly kindness and devoted love and a thousand moments of hard work and integrity that are never known to the world at large. The very fact that the evil acts in the world get such a disproportionate amount of media coverage betrays that those acts are anomalies, that they go against the grain of what we expect and what we are used to experiencing on a day-to-day basis.
Jesus speaks repeatedly of varying degrees of heavenly rewards (as well as degrees of punishments), which clearly implies it is actually possible – and expected – for us to do things that are genuinely good and that these actions are in fact deserving (which does not negate the earlier discussion on a child’s deserving of love due to nature and relationship, but is supplementary to it). Though I’m not quite sure what to do with them myself, it’s worth noting that the Psalmist regularly makes evangelicals cringe with his pleas to his own righteousness. I’ve often heard it repeated (by mouths including my own) that we can’t really be righteous or deserving because even our attempts at righteousness are “filthy rags,” but now I see that clearly this applies to hypocritical self-righteousness, and is not precluding genuine righteousness, which is possible, real, and rewarded.
Finally, the fact is God does love us. This in and of itself indicates that we must be worthy of loving, since however love works, we are proper objects of it. Morality stems from God’s nature, and He is the source and embodiment of love itself. If God does what is right, then it is right for Him to love us. Just think about that.
The result of all this is not theoretical. Our beliefs will always be manifested in our actions. The implications of the Lewis quote referenced above are clear. While you may not realize it, whether or not you hold a “fundamentally sinners and impossible to be deserving” belief does affect how you view and treat others. You may benefit by trying an experiment in self-awareness on this for a day, to see what I mean.
So, do you deserve to be loved? Apparently, God thinks so. It is right for God to love us, and wrong for us to reject his or others’ love or consider ourselves unworthy of it. To do so is to reject who we are as God’s children and our inheritance. I don’t believe people are perfect. But I do believe they are good. And I definitely believe they deserve to be loved.
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” – 1 John 3:2, ESV