Here’s a really good question today from a listener named Derek in Chicago: “Pastor John, I have been a Christian for about a decade, and it has been a wonderful decade of growth and learning in Scripture. I feel close to God. I know God loves me, and the shed blood of his Son proves it (according to Romans 8:32). But the question I more often struggle with is this: Does God actually like me?”
This is not just Derek’s question. Many ask the same thing. It often goes hand in hand with a family background in which there is no experience of being enjoyed, a father or a mother or others who basically coexisted with us or tolerated us, but rarely seemed to delight in us or want to be with us or take genuine spontaneous pleasure in anything we did or said. In other words, there are a lot of people who, from their own experience, have no actual existential categories for grasping the fact of someone, anyone, God included, liking them or enjoying them or delighting in them.
“God sees the incremental advances of our transformation by his Spirit and delights in them.”
It seems to me that what’s needed for a person like that — and it may be most of us — what’s needed is to discover an actual experience of being enjoyed by God and pleasing God and God smiling upon us and having pleasure in us. What’s needed for that to happen is three things: (1) a framework for understanding the love of God in its different dimensions; (2) a big bath of biblical text — just dive in, take a bath in the Bible about God’s delighting in his people; (3) a specific outpouring of the Holy Spirit that I can’t control and that Derek can’t control, but God may be pleased to give through his word, in which the heart experiences this not just as a biblical truth, but as a personal reality. Let me just say a word about each of those three things.
Two Dimensions of God’s Love
Here’s the simple framework for understanding several dimensions of the love of God. There are at least two dimensions to God’s love. There are probably subcategories of those, but here are two. One has been called the love of benevolence. This would be God’s goodwill. That’s what benevolence means: goodwill toward people that don’t deserve it. This is the kind of love that saved all of us who have any hope of making it to heaven.
We have that hope because God looked upon us when we were not beautiful, not attractive, not pleasing. He saw lostness and hopelessness and rebelliousness and dirty character and undeserving merit — no merit — and he loved us with a love of benevolence that saved us from destruction when we were running full speed away from him. That’s the love of benevolence. None of us would have a relationship with God without it.
Then, there is the love of delight or approval or being pleased, or what Derek probably means by being liked. When God created the world, including human beings, he said, “It is very good. This is good” (see Genesis 1:31). This was the love of delight. He saw what he had made, and he approved of it. He was pleased by it. He liked it.
But when human beings, and that’s all of us, fell into sin, God’s human creation was marred, defaced, made ugly, displeasing, even though there is a remnant of natural wonder about the human person that distinguishes us from the animals. But we’re so defaced and so debased that God finds us thoroughly unpleasing when it comes to a personal relationship.
“God delights in what we are becoming in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Here’s the amazing thing: when God, by his love of benevolence, saves us and counts us righteous in Christ, and gives us the Holy Spirit, he begins a work of transformation that restores aspects of our personhood which are delightful to him, pleasing to him, which he genuinely likes about us. This is what God is doing in sanctification. You might say sanctification is God making us likable, pleasing. That’s the first thing of the three that I mentioned.
A Bible Bath
Now, let’s turn and take a bath. Before the bath, here’s a Bible text that describes this decisive turn from being unable to please God — be liked by God — and able to be liked by God. It’s Romans 8:7–9, which goes like this: “The mind that is set on the flesh” — that’s who we were before we were born again — “is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh” — here it is — “cannot please God.”
This is our hopeless condition. We were in an absolutely hopeless state apart from salvation. We never pleased God. He never liked what we did, because everything we did was not from faith. It was rooted in pride and rooted in selfishness and rooted in vainglory and seeking our own and ignoring him. That didn’t please him at all.
Here’s the amazing transition. Romans 8:9 picks up like this: “You, however, are not in the flesh.” He just said in the flesh you cannot please God, “You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” In other words, you were without the Spirit and could not please God. Now, you have the Spirit and, by implication, you do please God. God does not give us his Spirit in vain. The Spirit does not produce unlikable fruit. God delights in, is pleased by what we are becoming in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I know this is hard to believe and hard to feel for many people, because our experience is that, if there’s any part of our lives that is imperfect, that’s what others are going to pick up on and complain about. They’re not going to spot anything good and like us for it. They’re going to spot what we haven’t yet accomplished for goodness, and they’re going to be displeased by it — and that’s especially true of God, people feel. We can never really be liked, only tolerated, because the focus is always on our shortcomings rather than our little successes.
I want to say loud and clear, God is not like that. Let me say it again, God is not like that. God sees the incremental advances of our transformation by his Spirit and delights in them.
“All you have to do is hope in God and tremble at his displeasure, and you’re a delight to him.”
God does not decide whom to like quantitatively. This is important. Listen carefully. He doesn’t decide whom he’s going to like quantitatively, as if when you get to 51% goodness, he’ll like you. Finally. When you are at 49%, he doesn’t like you. What God sees in us is not quantity, but real Holy Spirit–produced fruit. Every one of these little evidences of new, real, spiritual, regenerate life is a great delight to him. They are a real good, even if mixed with sinful attitudes. How could they not be his pleasure? They are his work. How demeaning can it be to say to the work of the Holy Spirit, “God doesn’t like it”? That’s awful for people to say that.
Here’s the bath:
- Psalm 35:27: “Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of his servant!”
- Jeremiah 32:41: “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.”
- Zephaniah 3:17: “He [God] will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
- Proverbs 11:20: “Those of crooked heart are an abomination to the Lord, but those of blameless ways are his delight.”
- Isaiah 62:4: “You shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.”
- Psalm 147:10–11: “His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” All you have to do is hope in God and tremble at his displeasure, and you’re a delight to him.
- Proverbs 3:11: “The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” Even when we’re being reproved, he calls us “the son in whom he delights.”
- Psalm 149:4: “The Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.”
That Bible bath could go on and on.
The Holy Spirit’s Role
Just one last thing: none of these glorious texts will make a difference in Derek’s life without the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in his heart to make this a personal experience. He and we should pray earnestly that Romans 5:5 happen when I’m done here, or maybe it’s happening right now. We pray that it will. It says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” That’s a real experience. When this happens, all those texts come alive as personal experiences, not just biblical truth.
I pray, Derek, that for you and the rest of us who want to please God, want God to delight in us, be pleased with us, like what we are and what we do, I pray that God would pour out his Holy Spirit and make these texts real.