Vicki from Chetek, Wisconsin, writes in to ask: “Often I hear that we are to love God for who he is, not for what He does for us — to love the giver more than the gifts. How can we know when we are doing this? When I examine my own heart, so much of what I know about God seems to be in relation to what I enjoy based upon his work as my creator, my redeemer, etc. I’m just not sure I know how to separate that out. Perhaps I make it too complicated.” Pastor John, what would you say to Vicki?
She is probably not making it too complicated, because it is complicated. But when we find that it gets complicated, we probably need to back up and look for a simple way to live, because God doesn’t mean for complication to paralyze us or to diminish our sense of enjoyment of him or his gifts. So I would affirm, first of all, she is right.
We Love the Giver Through His Gifts
Experiencing God and Jesus through their gifts is inseparable from experiencing God directly, because we are creatures, and we are creatures in bodies. And as embodied creatures, God has put us in a world to experience him indirectly. He is not his gifts. He is different from his gifts. And yet we experience him through his gifts.
And everybody knows that the love for a person and the love for their gifts are not the same. Yet we experience love through gifts, through touch, through sight, through Christmas presents under the tree.
And we also know — and this gets right to the heart of the matter — that if you love a person, for example, your wife, and she puts some thought into buying you a gift and puts it under the tree, and you open it on Christmas morning, you know that she will feel loved if you go bananas over this gift. If you lay the gift aside and say, “I really don’t care about this, just you,” well, that is going to get old, quickly.
However, if a man breaks into your house with a gun, puts the gun to her head and says, “I want your gifts, or I’ll kill her.” Really? Are you kidding me? Take the gift, knucklehead. And the wife would know, of course, that her husband loves her ten thousand times more than he loves the gift. And yet if he belittles the gift, if he turns away from the gift, he is not loving her well. And so that is the way it is, almost all the time, with God in this world.
Spring-Loaded for Idolatry
Now here is the catch that is making life hard for Vicki, and making her feel discouraged about this, and it makes me discouraged too. Since the fall, we have got a major problem on our hands. Before the fall, before we humans were sinners, nobody experienced this problem. I think loving God and loving the things that God made were in perfect harmony. There was no idolatry in the world and no competition between God and his gifts, because we were not sinners.
"In this age, God mixes pleasure and pain to provide us with revelation of his goodness and protect us from idolatry."
Now we are sinners, which means we are spring-loaded to turn gifts into alternatives to God. And so what does God do? Well, in this age between our fall and our perfection at the second coming, God uses pleasure and pain to provide us with revelations of his goodness and protect us from loving substitutes. He uses a mixture. He brings pleasures into our life in order that we might know him through those and he brings pain into our life in order to show us that he is more important than the things.
Mixed Pleasure and Pain
And there are texts that point to this truth of mixed pleasure and pain.
Romans 2:4 says, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness . . . not knowing that the God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” So there you have God giving good things to unbelievers to lead them to repentance. Psalm 19:1, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” So he is lavishing us, day after day, with sunrises and sunsets to get attention for his glory. First Timothy 4:3, where marriage and food are created to be received with thanksgiving. First Timothy 6:17, same thing. Everything created richly for your enjoyment.
So there is a whole slew of texts that describe the goodness of creation, all of it to say, “You have a good God, a lavish, generous Father, turn to him. Love him. Be thankful to him.”
And then, because we are fallen, that is not all God does. He calls us to a life of self-denial. He says to Paul, the reason you were unbearably crushed and despaired of life itself was so that you might rely upon me (2 Corinthians 1:8–9). Romans 5:3, rejoice in tribulation because it works patience and patience works hope and hope doesn’t put us to shame, and so we are driven to hope in God because of tribulation. And Paul, in Philippians 3:8, says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And we have all the passages on fasting and self-denial.
Love the Gift — And God Through It
So I think the answer is that we should look at everything good that God gives us and see right into it and through it to him as a good giver. We should remember that he is a person and that we should be willing to lose it all and say, “To die is gain,” because he is more important than any of these things. And he is going to give it all back to us in the age to come when we are suited and fit to receive it without any idolatry.