What does it mean to “love God for his own sake”?

Q. I recently watched a video on hell where a Christian philosopher asks “Why are [people] being good?” Then he goes on to say that people who preach about hell and incite fear in people are not creating a heart that will love God. He calls this “being good for your own sake.” I know the Bible says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Yet, Jesus warns in Revelation that the church in Ephesus needs to “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Jesus is using fear as a motivator here.

I do not see how you can love God for His own sake and not your own. You have to be thankful for something He does for you. What is genuinely best for you is to serve and love other people. Yet it is still all for your own sake because when you do something for another’s sake, you decide that sacrificing something “for their sake” is actually what is best for your sake! So we always should seek to do what is best for us, yet many people, like the aforementioned philosopher, view external motivators as impure. In light of this, what does it mean to be selfish from a biblical point of view? And, what on earth does it mean to love God “for His own sake?”

Actually, I understand what this philosopher is saying. Perhaps a helpful analogy might be to ask why we love our parents or our spouses. Is it only for what we get from them? Or is there something noble and excellent that we recognize in them that makes us love them independently of anything they might do for us? (With Valentine’s Day coming up, let me warn all of my readers: Don’t give that special someone in your life a card that says, “I love you because of everything I get from you”!)

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Jonathan Edwards, and in his work on The Nature of True Virtue, he defined it as a “disinterested general benevolence” that does “not properly arise from self-love.” Disinterested means without being in it for what we can get out of it ourselves, and benevolence means acting in goodness in the best interests of others. I think the philosopher on the video you saw was arguing in this same tradition.

I don’t believe that Jesus actually is using fear as a motivator when in Revelation he warns the church in Ephesus that if it doesn’t recapture its first love, he will have to take away its lampstand (that is, its very existence). Letting someone know the consequences of the course they’re on is indeed a vital warning, but it’s not designed to motivate them by fear. That would not be a lasting motivation; emotions always wear off. Rather, the person is supposed to be motivated by recognizing the difference between where they are heading and where they could and should be heading. The difference may represent a loss to themselves, but it is also a loss to others, and ultimately it is a failure to be a good steward of all the gifts and opportunities that God has so richly provided us so that we can fulfill our purpose. In that sense it is a failure to love God.

As for what it means to “love God for his own sake,” in his Treatiste Concering Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The first objective ground of gracious affections [i.e. those that arise from the saving work of God in our lives], is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things as they are themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest.” In other words, just as I suggested that we should be able to recognize something noble about our parents or spouses that would lead us to love them apart from anything we might receive from them, in an even greater sense, we should recognize that God is “transcendently excellent and amiable” [i.e. to be loved], and love God for that inherent excellence.

If these ideas are all new to you, and you’re puzzling over them, I would simply say that you have some great discoveries ahead of you. God did not create the world to be a place where everyone was inherently motivated by self-interest. Instead, it’s supposed to be a place where free giving out of love can flourish, creating more of itself until people delight to be a blessing to others far more than they desire to have things for themselves. So I guess I’d say … keep in listening to videos by that same philosopher!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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