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Human love is largely based on need. We love when it personally benefits us to do so, and those we love most are those we need the most. We don’t like the idea that we are so self-centered in our attempts to love, but there it is. If you doubt it, just look at how devastated we become when we are suddenly separated from those we love. Many of us become so emotionally paralyzed that we spend the rest of our lives pretending the dead are still with us. We talk to their pictures, we get tattoos on our bodies to symbolize their presence with us, we carry around their material possessions, and we become extremely defensive whenever someone says something less than complimentary about their memory.
Why is it so hard for us to cut ties and move on? Because that person filled a critical emotional or psychological need for us and we can’t afford to let that need go unmet. Hovering parents, possessive lovers, and high-maintenance friends: we’ve come up with these negative labels to describe the suffocation we feel when some other person tries to force us to meet their emotional needs. Every human relationship is made up of two people doing a give and take. No relationship gets off the ground unless someone sees the potential for someone else to benefit them and someone else is willing to do some giving. Things get ugly when one person tries to do all the taking. But where did all this neediness come from in the first place?
God created us with a strong sense of frailty, a desperate need to be valued, and a need for completion. All of these things drive us to seek fulfillment outside of ourselves. Of course all of these needs are meant to drive us towards God. But instead we often end up trying to satisfy our needs with some strange combination of people, animals, and material objects. We get hyper-bonded to our dog, calling her our “daughter” and fantasizing about all the deep feelings she has towards us when in reality she’s just waiting for us to refill her food dish. We become obsessed with our children, seeking personal completion through their accomplishments and demanding that they come up with trophies and grandchildren that will reflect well on us. We fall in love with a peer and decide that we can’t possibly live without them. We display our twenty-year-old medals, ribbons, and self-glorifying news articles in the faces of all our guests and tell them how we got them before they can even ask. We drive around in polished, booming hot rods to convince the world that we are extra manly, and then we throw a childish tantrum if someone accidentally dents a fender because we feel our personal identity has been assaulted.
When it comes to satisfying ourselves and proving our worth to others, God is often at the bottom of our resource list. This is because He is invisible, intangible, and impossible to control. But when frightening circumstances arise, all humans instantly connect with their intrinsic frailty and mentally reach out for a some higher power to save them. At least Christians know which Power to reach for, yet far too often God only gets our full attention when we are in some personal crisis. The rest of the time, we go back to our toys, money, pets and people to try and satisfy those core needs even though God offers us something far better.
God not only says that He can satisfy all of our core needs, He also offers us a love that is completely non-human. God is the only Being in existence who loves purely out of choice and not out of need. While this is supposed to make us feel even more secure in His grip, it actually scares us if we really stop to think about it. On earth we instinctively understand that everyone who loves us depends on us for something. Perhaps we’ve never consciously put this together, yet our manipulative behavior demonstrates our intrinsic understanding of this principle. No one has to teach us how to use other people’s needs against them, we come by it naturally. Just look at the nastiness played out in a preschool playground where one group of children tells a newcomer that he can’t play with them. Why not? Because they can see the need all over his little face and their fallen natures get high off of feeling like they’re in the power position. We see the same ugly behavior in adults all the time: those who are the most invested in a relationship have the least control over it.
Once we decide that someone can satisfy our needs in a unique way, we often become willing to make all kinds of inappropriate sacrifices in order to please them. How many parents let their adult brats and twerpy grandchildren walk all over them simply because they’re afraid to lose the relationships? Because we often view our own flesh and blood as irreplaceable, we will do many foolish and dangerous things in order to protect them. Why do so many parents rush to bail their kids out of jail when their kids fully deserve to be there? Why are they willing to lie, cheat, and destroy the careers of others in order to push their little monsters to the top of some competitive sport or corporate ladder? Clearly it is because they need something from the child and the child knows it, which is why he continues to make his obnoxious demands.
We might not enjoy every aspect of this need-based love, but at least we understand how to work with it. We don’t enjoy being pushed around by our needs, but we can usually compensate by finding someone else that we can push around. Even in mature relationships where both parties are treating each other with decency and respect, the fact that the other person needs us to some degree brings us a great sense of security. We know it is their need that will keep them coming back to us and caring about what we say. Even when we accidentally hurt their feelings with some careless remark, we experience a mixed reaction. We are sorry that we wounded them, but some part of us is also comforted to see that we still hold some emotional sway over them. Should the day ever come when they don’t care one bit about our opinion, we would feel quite distressed.
Compared to humans, God is a very upsetting combination of autonomy and needlessness that we just can’t find a way to get our controlling hooks into. Of course most of us pretend that we can control God by trying to bribe Him with our service, worship, and offerings. We tell ourselves that He needs us to like Him and that at least some small part of His personal esteem depends on His creatures adoring Him. But of course we’re delusional. God is totally independent of us. He doesn’t need the slightest scrap of anything from us, and that means we have zero control over Him. This is extremely disconcerting. When we look at the cross, we see an act of desperate need-based love because we project human motivations onto it. After all, we certainly wouldn’t sacrifice our own child or die for someone else unless their well-being was essential to us for some reason. When we read that Yahweh “so loved us” that He sent Jesus to die on our behalf, we really hear that Yahweh “so needed us.” And because we look at only the cross, and refuse to look at Hell, many of us never wake up from this most dangerous delusion.
It is the cross and Hell sitting side by side that tell the real, nonsensical picture of God’s love for us. God says that the cross is irrefutable evidence of His intense desire for us. He then points to Hell to underscore how much He doesn’t need us to sit around loving and praising Him. If we submit to Him, He will thoroughly enjoy abiding with us in an eternal paradise. If we defy Him, He will thoroughly enjoy torturing us in the same horrible place that He’s going to be making demons writhe in for eternity.
What kind of Being can get equal delight out of loving and destroying us? God isn’t like anyone we’ve ever met before. One minute He is weeping with us in our sorrows, the next minute He’s laughing over our souls writhing in Hell. We like to think of God putting great thought into making earth and Heaven, but we act like Hell just happened because we can’t get our mind around the same God making a beautiful paradise and a prison of unceasing torment. God is a frightening mystery to us: He presents us with a combination of opposite extremes that our calculating minds can’t quite figure out how to leverage against Him. God calls us to draw nearer to Him, but He’s just fine if we don’t. As much as we love to exalt our freedom of choice, it backfires in our faces when we realize that it is yet more evidence of how much God doesn’t need us. He swings the door of rejection wide open and is perfectly content to watch us walk through it. He calls to us and says He is the better option, but if we refuse Him long enough, He just shrugs and flicks us into Hell. How can we possibly feel secure with such a needless Being? How can we know that He really loves us and that He’s not just experiencing some temporary mood that will change without warning?
From God’s perspective, He is offering us something far more secure and dependable than the need-based love we’re familiar with. While it’s true that we feel more secure knowing that those who feel most bonded to us are chained to us by some kind of need, God argues that the presence of need cheapens the quality of the love we receive. Humans don’t love us just because, they love us to get something from us. They give to get, and their apparent desire for us is really fueled by their delight in what we are giving them in return. The day we stop meeting their needs, they cut us off. God offers us something much purer. His love is an entirely voluntary act on His part. We can do nothing to earn it. He will love us as long and as much as He wants to: He has complete control at all times and He declares that He dearly loves every soul He creates. What’s our guarantee that He will continue to love us once we are His kids? The fact that He says He will, not some silly need.
The problem with need based love is that people can get the same need met a thousand different places. Those who have had their spouses cheat on them have learned this lesson all too well. There’s really no such thing as a human who can satisfy us in some unique way—we pretend this is a possibility when we are caught up in intense hormones or devastated by loss, but in reality we could find someone else who could satisfy us just as well. When we believe this isn’t true, it is only because we have closed our minds to the possibility by clinging to the memory of a lost loved one that we refuse to see in the balanced light of reality. We all have ugly qualities and offensive characteristics, which is why a love based solely on human character is very frail indeed. Without God’s help, we won’t stay faithful to our spouses or do right by our children because we are far too selfish to keep giving when we can’t see what’s in it for us. But God plays no such games. He says He wants us by His own choice, and that His love for us is built on His perfect, unchanging Character. Because human character is so untrustworthy, the idea of character-based love makes us extremely nervous. Yet God reminds us that He is not human and that basing something on His Character makes it the ultimate guarantee. How do we get comfortable with putting our weight down on such a foreign type of love? It requires a leap of faith.
God says that He loves us solely because He wants to. As far as He is concerned, this is far more complimentary and satisfying than the conditional affection other humans offer us. He offers to value us simply because we are His creations, not for what we can do for Him in return. And if we come to Him on His terms, then He promises to love us forever. How can we possibly scorn such an incredible offer? Surely suffering in Hell is the only reasonable response to such unjustified rudeness. God doesn’t need our approval but He doesn’t need to put up with our rebellion, either.
Because God’s Character is so good, the love which that Character produces is good as well. God is an active, fully engaged Lover who treats us with the perfect balance of boundaries, discipline, blessing and encouragement. He fiercely devotes Himself to giving us what is truly best for our souls—a best which He alone has the wisdom to discern. If we choose to put our trust and faith in His Character-based love, we will find total satisfaction and soul completion. If we refuse to fully trust Him and instead keep depending on human need-based love in order to get our cores satisfied, we will never experience His ideal for us. The choice is ours to make, and it is one we must keep making on deeper and deeper levels as we progress in the faith.
The closer we get to God, the more we understand just how different His love really is and the more uncomfortable it makes us. It is foreign, uncontrollable, and it leaves us with no option but to see ourselves as completely dependent on a Creator who could change His view of us at any time. God makes it quite clear that there is no external power or internal need that is forcing Him to stay faithful to us. He says He will always love us simply because He wants to. If we really knew who He was, we would find this incredibly reassuring. Because we don’t know Him all that well, we find it extremely nerve-racking for it leaves us without any backup plan. If God were to suddenly change His mind and decide to throw everyone into Hell, there is no way we could stop Him. He says that’s not something His kids ever have to be afraid of. He says we can build everything on His love for us and know that it will stand strong.
Not only can we not control God, we can’t understand why He loves us in the first place because it makes no logical sense when He doesn’t need anything from us. Yet this isn’t the first time we’ve seen God acting irrational. His whole salvation plan is utterly impossible to fathom. How does it please God to inflict misery on Himself so He can excuse us from suffering the consequences of our own sin? It would be far more logical for Him to declare the entire human race as unforgivable after we so willingly defied Him. What made Yahweh decide to use the death of Jesus as an excuse to give us eternal forgiveness instead of viewing our brutal murder of Jesus like an unforgivable sin? The closer we get to God, the more He exposes us to new layers of irony and mystery within His glorious Being. But no matter how shocking we might find Him to be, the fact remains that He is the One who brought us into existence and aligning with Him is our only hope of true happiness. So will we take the leap of faith and dare to trust in His wild rules and crazy promises? We will never really know who we were made to be until we do.
Accepting the Mercy of God
Understanding the Love of God: The Five Versions of You
Justifying God’s Love for Us