One of the most stunning shifts in American Christianity is the shift away from God as the all-satisfying gift of God’s love. The Bible teaches that the best and final gift of God is the enjoyment of God. In place of this we have turned the love of God into a divine endorsement of our delight in being made much of. Test yourself: Do you feel more loved when God makes much of you or when he enables you to enjoy making much of him? Does your happiness hang on seeing the cross of Christ as a witness to your worth, or as a way to enjoy God’s worth forever? Is God’s glory at the bottom of your gladness?
The sad thing is that a radically man-centered view of love permeates our culture and our churches. From the time they can toddle, we teach our children that feeling loved means feeling made much of. We have built educational curricula, parenting skills, motivational strategies, therapeutic models, and selling techniques around this view of love. Most Americans can scarcely imagine an alternative understanding of feeling loved other than feeling made much of. If you don’t make much of me, you are not loving me.
But when you apply this definition of love to God, it weakens his worth, undermines his goodness, and steals our final satisfaction. If the enjoyment of God himself is not the final and best gift of love, then God is not the greatest treasure, his self-giving is not the highest mercy, and our souls must look beyond him for satisfaction.
This distortion of divine love into an endorsement of self-adulation is insidious. It creeps right into worship. We claim to be praising God because of his love for us. But if his love for us is at bottom his making much of us, who is really being praised? We are willing to be God-centered, it seems, as long as God is man-centered. We are willing to boast in the cross as long as the cross is a witness to our worth. Who then is our pride and joy?
Our fatal error is believing that wanting to be happy means wanting to be made much of. It feels so good to be affirmed. But the good feeling is finally rooted in the worth of self, not the worth of God. This path to happiness is an illusion.
And there are clues. One is that no one goes to the Grand Canyon or to the Rockies to increase his self-esteem. That is not what happens in front of massive deeps and majestic heights. But we do go there for joy. So there is a witness in us that soul-health and great happiness come not from beholding a great self, but a great splendor.
The Bible teaches that the final ground of our joy is seeing and savoring the personal greatness of God in Christ. Consider Jesus’s strange love in letting Lazarus die. According to John 11:1–6 Jesus’s friend, Lazarus, had a terminal illness. His sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” To this Jesus says, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” In other words, Jesus takes the sisters’ focus on love (“he whom you love”) and orients it on the glory of God.
Then John says something almost incomprehensible: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” In other words, precisely because he loved him (notice the word “so”), he let him die. How is this love? Jesus already answered that: In letting him die, he and his sisters will see the glory of God. Seeing the glory of God is a greater gift of love than life.
Over and over the Bible leads us to define God’s love as his doing whatever he must do — even at the cost of his Son — so that sinners like us can see and savor his glory forever. The apostle Peter put it like this: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). The goal of God’s love in sending Christ is not to make much of us, but to free us from bondage to mirrors, so we can enjoy making much of him forever.