Good news! God likes you!

Over on my politics blog yesterday I wrote a post about David Laws, chief secretary of the Treasury until his resignation over questionable expenses claims.

One of the points I made in that post was that the circumstances of (what turned out to be) Laws’ downfall had actually made me warm to him as a person: had made me see him as a human being rather than a “dessicated calculating machine”; in a word, had made me like him.

My use of the word “like” was deliberate, and was influenced by James Alison’s use of the term, as exemplified in the title of the book by Alison that I’m currently reading: On Being Liked. For Alison, it is a key truth that God not only loves us – a much overused word – but that he likes us. That’s a truth to stop us in our tracks.

God so loved the world that he sent his only Son – yes, but had love alone been the motive, why did Jesus devote three years to spending time with his disciples and with outcasts: tax collectors, prostitutes, “sinners”? Because he liked them, likes people, likes us.

“Liking” may seem like a modest emotion, but often it is where our true humanness is to be found. Alison describes the response to 9/11 as one of “unanimity and grief” – in which the sacrificial order made sacred and meaningful what was (like the fall of the tower of Siloam) without any God-given meaning. But in the midst of it was something else:

There was the sacred grief I described, but there were also, mixed up with it, genuine outbursts of compassion: wonder at the two who jumped out of the building holding hands; a warmth of heart as news emerged of the messages of simple love bereft of any huge religious significance left on answering machines.

At the same time as the sacred violence extended its lure, we also made little breakthroughs of our own into simply liking humans.

Alison goes on to observe that the “moving images on film” failed to move him in the same way as did reading about the events in the next day’s newspapers, where “the human dimension managed to start to break through for me.”

He argues that Jesus (and in particular his resurrection) teaches us to escape the “sacred lie” of unanimity found in the sacrificial exclusion of some “other”, of our compulsion to impose “meaning” on meaningless violence. Jesus’ desire is “for us not to be trapped in death”, which leads Alison to a conclusion that is “apparently terribly banal but, I think, of earth-shattering significance”:

The person who teaches us to look away [from worldly patterns of desiring] and models for us another way of desiring actually likes us. It is only possible to imagine doing something like that for someone you actually like.

Alison continues:

The staggering thing that this means, for me, is that the most extraordinary fruit of contemplation in the shadow of the violence which we are experiencing is: God likes us. All of us. God likes me and I like being liked.

There is an important contrast between “being liked” and “being loved”:

The word “love” which we have overused can have for us the meaning of a forceful intervention to rescue us, and we can forget that behind a forceful intervention to rescue us, which may indeed be how love is shown in a particular circumstance, there is something much stronger, gentler and more continuous, not dependent at all on needing to rescue us. This is liking us.

We are surrounded by the “false manufacturing of meaning and frightening power displayed by the satanic”. But in the midst of this:

we are being taught that our being liked and held in being is at the hands of something infinitely more powerful, infinitely restful, and we can live without fear. What is being revealed is the power of the Creator. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

So there’s a good message for this Trinity Sunday. The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, likes you. Think about that. And don’t be afraid.

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5 Responses to Good news! God likes you!

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    The category is a real one. I think it would have to be proved inductively, and would probably take a bit of doing. You offered a sample of the kind of material we would look for, and we might need counter counter arguments at the ready.

    But the distinction figures into the dialog of one of my favorite movies, Shenandoah, when Charlie Anderson talks with a prospective son-in-law about how he feels about his daughter:

    Charlie Anderson: Do you like her?
    Lt. Sam: Well, I just said I…
    Charlie Anderson: No, no. You just said you loved her. There’s some difference between lovin’ and likin’. When I married Jennie’s mother, I-I didn’t love her – I liked her… I liked her a lot. I liked Martha for at least three years after we were married and then one day it just dawned on me I loved her. I still do… still do. You see, Sam, when you love a woman without likin’ her, the night can be long and cold, and contempt comes up with the sun.

  2. John H says:

    Rick: I agree one could probably find texts which appear in a different direction. But my feeling is that priority needs to be given to how Jesus behaved in his ministry. If we conclude from Jesus’ ministry that he basically liked people, then that gives us a truth about God which is then the context for interpreting the texts.

    Love that quote, though. 🙂

  3. Rick Ritchie says:

    Oh, I think it’s a real category. I just know how my Calvinist friends tend to see things of that sort. A very few verses can always be interpreted such that “liking” is not in view. But if you have more, that becomes more difficult. I think it’s worth looking around for them and thinking about how to show this. There are probably readers who would like to share your conclusion but don’t feel safe with them yet.

    One thing that I get from the Shenandoah quote is that it is easy to imagine that God loves us, that is, He is willing to pay a high price for us, but that he doesn’t like us, that is, He has contempt for us. I have heard pastors who taught in such a fashion (though thankfully not in a very long time). Not directly. It is more of a tone.

    Have you seen Shenandoah? It is filled with great lines.

  4. John H says:

    Rick: one example that springs to mind is that verse from Hosea(?): “When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert”. Then there are all those references to God “delighting” in his people. (I don’t have my Bible immediately to hand as I write this!)

    But I’d still want to go back to Jesus to control our understanding on this. Yes, some texts could support the “God loves us but doesn’t like us” view. But that would suggest that Jesus spent his life looking down his nose at people, magnanimously spending time with them so as to fulfil Scripture and achieve his purposes, but not actually liking them, and probably rather relieved to get away and have some time doing more spiritual things.

    Again, one can perhaps rather naughtily imagine some pastors finding that a compelling model for their own ministry, but I don’t think it holds water. For starters, the sort of people who enjoyed Jesus’ company were precisely the sort of people who we know from our own experience are very quick to detect hypocrisy and condescension in those of their “betters” who deign to interact with them.

    (Or we might conclude, tacitly or openly, that Jesus’ personality and behaviour are not a reliable guide to what God is really like. I suspect more people think that than would like to let on.)

  5. Rick Ritchie says:

    “But that would suggest that Jesus spent his life looking down his nose at people, magnanimously spending time with them so as to fulfil Scripture and achieve his purposes, ”

    Obviously a problem! But I don’t think it’s a total straw man position, either. There are people who talk like this. And while few pastors probably preach like this, I have to wonder if it isn’t pragmatism keeping their sermons from being worse than they would be if the pastor felt he could say what he thought without fear.

    The Hosea example is good. Unfortunately I think I know what some might do. “He delights in the fact that glory will come to his name on account of finding them.” The good thing about amassing the texts is the case for “liking” gets stronger with each example. A small number can be explained away. Scores of them cannot. (And the one who tries to will expose his own heart. Which is probably helpful.)

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