God’s only motivation? God’s love.

If you grew up in the church, or have hung around it for any length of time, or even attended a football game for that matter, you’re familiar with John 3:16. This is the most famous verse in the Bible. “For God so loved…”

It’s #1 on Bible Gateway’s most read verses. It’s been memorized and recited and emblazoned on mugs, posters and T-shirts. All that familiarity means that sometimes we don’t really stop to listen to what it actually says.

But if you’re needing to be centered, if you’re trying to build a life that doesn’t rest on striving and performing, if you’re feeling alone, stopping to listen to this verse is one of the most important things you can do.

Just listen to the words as they proceed in sequence.

Truth, One Phrase at a Time.

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Photo Credit: Kathryn Siegwart

“For God…”

It starts with God. Nicodemus, the guy Jesus is talking to in this verse, thought He was pursuing God. After all, he sought out Jesus. But really, God was pursuing him. You may have worked hard to chase down God. You may have read books and memorized scripture and engaged in spiritual practices, but you didn’t chase down God. God’s been pursuing you.

“For God so loved…”

Some people know God as judge. Some know God as creator. Some think of God as an untouchable ideal. But here Jesus tells us that God is a lover. Whatever happens next in this sentence is motivated by God’s love.

“For God so loved the world…”

Maybe God’s motivation is love, but love for whom? The chosen? The good, clean, shiny people? Nope. Jesus tells us that God’s love encompasses the world. That’s everyone. That’s chosen people and not-chosen people. That’s devout careful followers of the law, and flagrant willful sinners. That’s people like me, and people not like me.

“For God so loved the world that He gave…”

See, God’s love isn’t just an ideal. It’s a moving force. It caused God to act. Can you imagine God being moved? (Does God even have emotions?)  Love moved God to give. This isn’t a picture of a God waiting around for sacrifices and worship.  This God is acting because of love.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.”

What gift was God motivated to give? In some amazing, gracious, unfathomable way, God gave His Son–a part of Himself–to all of humanity.

Perhaps this seems elementary to you.  But consider this:

These fourteen words open a window into God’s heart that humanity has missed and misunderstood and mischaracterized and misrepresented for generations and generations. Tweet That.

God’s Primary Motivation

God’s primary motivation is love.  That’s not what most of the world thinks about God. I’m not sure that it’s even what most Christians think about God. We know that God can love. We want God to love us. But when we think about God acting in the world, do we really think that God’s love shapes His every action?

Maybe we think that God acts because of justice, or mercy, or truth. If we’ve got baggage, we think that God acts out of spite or anger or vindictiveness. If we accept that God loves us, I think sometimes we feel like God loves us in the way an inventor loves his invention, not in the way a mother loves her only child.

And yet, when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, this is what He was saying: God’s motivation towards us, the reason for everything God does towards us, is love. It was only ever love.

Love’s History

Think through the story of God and His people as told in the Bible.

It was because of this love that God created in the first place–because love needs people to love. It was because of this love that God gave us free will and the opportunity for an authentic and meaningful existence. Love does not manipulate.

It was because of this love that God put a plan in place to rescue us from the destructive path we chose with our free will. Love sent Jesus into our world. Love was Jesus’ model. It was His method. It was His message. Love motivated His words of compassion for the hurting and wounded. Love shaped His words of reproof for those blinded by their pride. Love put Jesus in direct conflict with the powers of His time.

Love put Him on the cross and love kept Him there. Because of love He bore the sins of all humanity. Because of love He took upon Himself our shame. Because of love he was separated from the father. Because of love he was crushed physically and spiritually, and died.

It was love that raised Jesus from the dead, showing that only love is more powerful than hate and selfishness, greed and fear. God’s love is more powerful than even death!

In love, Jesus commissioned His followers to create a new kind of community. It would be a community that not only spoke about love, but also that lived it out–in painful and practical ways, never quite getting it right.

Because of God’s love those first followers carried the story of Jesus to the known world and beyond. Because of God’s love that story eventually came to you.

Because of love, God has not manipulated in your circumstances, allowing your choices and consequences to play out, so that you would have the opportunity to mature and grow. Because of love, God is reaching out to you in every way possible, so that you could come to know His heart.  Because of love He is present in your pain.

Even at the end of all things when there is final judgment, that too will be motivated by love. Those people who have chosen to receive God’s love will receive it for eternity. Those people who have chosen in the depth of their soul to reject God’s love, will be allowed that choice. This won’t be vindictive punishment. It will happen with tears as God acting in love, allows them to have what they finally desire, because in the grip of their own prideful self-love, they cannot be loved by another, or love another back.

It is not that God can love.  It is that God is love.

See, there has only ever been one motivation in the heart of God. Love.

It’s not that God is loving. It’s not that God will love the people who obey Him. It’s not that God will love you and bless you, if you accept him. It’s that God IS love and God’s relationship with you is love.

  • Some of us think that love is tribal: God loves those on His team.
  • Or that God’s love is a consequence: God loves those who obey.
  • Or perhaps that this love is a reward: God loves those who perform.

But here’s the truth: Whether you’re a hard-working clean-living devout Christian, or if you’re a ragged rebel; if you’ve kept every moral standard, or shattered every commandment a hundred times; no matter what your parents said, no matter what some Christian told you, no matter what you think of yourself–right now, this moment, the way you are today–God loves you.

That is God’s only motivation toward you.

Love.


Note: This post is the core of a sermon of mine.  If you’d like to hear more, including more of the Biblical background, you can watch it here, on Youtube. September 9, 2012,  “For God So Loved”

19 thoughts on “God’s only motivation? God’s love.

      1. Hi Marc   Thank you for your reply.  In clarification to your question.  When i help people who have not prayed for Gods help first then i am meeting their need and they do not turn to God for help and i am tak8ng Gods plac3 and am in idolatry,  i think.  What do you think?

        1. Hmm….  I don’t think so.  Here’s how I see it. As followers of Jesus we are called to help and serve others. We’re not given permission to judge their need, or their motivation. That’s between them and God.  Idolatry is when I allow something to become my source of security besides God. So, for me, I could turn serving others into idolatry, for example, if the affirmation I get from serving becomes a form of value-seeking. In that case, I’m not really serving others; I’m serving myself. Then, I’ve turned my act of service into idolatry.  But, I think we get into real sketchy territory if we’re trying to figure out what someone else’s idol is. That moves us into the realm of judging another’s heart. Romans 14 is my cue that I have no right to do that.

          1. Hi Marc.  When people turn to me for meeting their needs, then i am in idolatry and so are they.  Prayer and Gods answer is loving obedience, i believe.  Thanks for helping me clarify and establish this.  In Christ, Judy

  1. Thank you for this article. I really like it how you broke down that verse. I never thought of it in those ways before. I just have one question, or maybe 2 or 3, hehe. I have heard that God’s main motive in loving us is to bring glory to Himself, so that we will enjoy Him. Isn’t that selfish, where He only loves us to gain something in return? Or is He loving us so that we feel valued and secure, strictly for our benefit, like the way a father would just be enjoying his child and wanting the child to feel his love? I am really struggling with this concept, as if He is just loving us for His glory, then His love doesn’t really seem to count as genuine love, and in reality, He is loving the praise we give Him, not loving and valuing us for us. Am I missing something?

    1. Hey Rachel, the idea that everything God does is about God’s glory is a common belief out there. (It’s most strongly held in Calvinist or Reformed theological circles.) It’s one I deeply disagree with. God isn’t trying to build up God’s own glory. I suspect that God never even thinks about God’s glory. God is simply glorious. All of what God is reflect glory like the sun. But God isn’t then choosing to do certain things because those things increase God’s glory. I read scripture as telling us that the essence of God’s character is love, and that everything God does is an application or expression of what God is. The fact that God is only, always, and fully love is glorious! But God’s love for us isn’t some kind of charity project meant to make God look good. That’s ridiculous. You’re not missing something. You’re seeing the natural and right outcome of God being love.

  2. Wow, thank you for responding so soon. I never thought about that, but it makes sense that God doing things for His own glory is more with the Calvinist view. It’s just so strange that so much of that view is out there, even with theologians that I didn’t think were Calvinist or Reform. And they site verses where either Jesus Himself is talking or others in the Epistles talking about God blessing people for His own glory. What do those verses actually mean, if God isn’t aiming for His own glory? It’s hard to see it any other way, especially after seeing all the arguments in favor of that concept. Although, I never did see Him in that light before, even though I have been struggling with trusting His love frequently. I guess with the more I learn, the more questions I have, hehe.

    1. Glory is not something God does. Glory is the manifestation of God’s essence. In the human realm something is glorious when it is good, true, authentic, and beautiful. We see amazing art, and that instinctual response “Ahhh!” is us noting the glory of the piece. When we praise that work of art to others, telling them how excellent it is, that is us “giving it glory.” So God, being ultimately good, perfect, beautiful and loving, is always glorious. God doesn’t set out to be glorious, and nothing God does makes God more glorious. God is glorious because that’s what’s so. When we do anything that aligns with that, we are giving God glory. So, when we worship or pray, or share about God with others, all of that is “giving God glory.” When we live out our purpose, or act in loving and merciful ways that also “gives God glory.” But God is not out there somewhere saying, “Give me more glory, I need it.” God simply wants us to live in alignment with our design, and in relationship with the Trinity. When we do that, that gives God glory. When we talk about it, that gives God glory. But the goal of life is not to pump up God’s ego. The goal is to mature in the image of Christ. (Eph. 4). When we do that we are giving God glory, but not because we set out to be glory-givers. Glory is a side effect of loving God and living in alignment with God.

      Having more questions is good! It means you’re thinking about all of this. Trust the Spirit to teach you. 🙂

      1. Hm, I never thought about it that way before. So since God’s essence is glory, does that mean that when the Bible talks about God doing something for His glory, for example, Isaiah 43:7, where it says, “…, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made,…”, is that saying He is doing it because that’s how He is and who He is? And who He is brings Him glory automatically?
        Thank you for welcoming my questions. Indeed, I think alot and reflect on everything I read and learn. I think I get confused, because I tend to think too much, hehe, and I don’t know which of the many different perspectives out there I should see as the truth.

        1. Pretty close, I think. Glory isn’t God’s essence. (I know… it’s part is pretty nerdy.) Love is God’s essence. Glory is what happens when God manifests God’s essence. When God is being God (love, truth, goodness, beauty, etc.), that is glorious. Here’s a poor example. When you boil water in the stove it lets off steam. The steam is not the boiling. It’s not the heat. It’s not the water. The steam is a by-product of boiling water, that lets you know the water is boiling. In the same way, when God is going about being God that is glorious.

          So, in the example passage from Isaiah, what does it mean to say God created God’s people “for my glory?” Well, if God’s essence is other-centered co-suffering love, as we learn in Jesus, one of the things about love is that it is always pouring outward. One of the expressions of love is creativity. God created the world and everything in it because of love. That creative act is glorious. Why? Because it’s God acting out God’s essence, and any time God does that, it is glorious.

          Some will say, “Ah, but God created people it order to GIVE God glory.” Saying, essentially, that humanity’s most important job is to chant God’s name, say things like “Praise God,” and of course, obey all of God’s laws, which also gives God glory. I disagree. God created us because of love. When an artist creates a work of art that expresses their point of view, that work of art reflects on the artist. When you stand in a museum looking at the painting, marveling at how the painting almost glows with inner light, that experience is giving glory to the artist. “How did she do it? It looks so real? This is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen!” That’s giving the artist glory. Not parading around with banners saying, “Such-and-so is the greatest artist ever!” Just you, experiencing the beauty and being in wonder over it—that gives the artist glory.

          In the same way, humans give God glory when they reflect the character of the Artist. When we live lives that reflect other-centered co-suffering love, when we speak truth, when we love mercy and justice, when we care for “the least of these,” when we “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ,” when we do those kinds of things we “give glory” to God, because we are reflecting God’s essence in the world. That’s how we were “Created for God’s glory.”

          1. Ooohh, I think I am understanding what you are saying. So you are saying that God’s essence is love, that He created us out of His love, and that He created us to reflect His essence, which would automatically give Him glory? So when God is saying He created us for His glory, it’s like He is telling the order of events, but skipping the second step, since it would be obvious? Like, the way an algebra math problem can be done, either showing every single step to the answer, or only showing intermittent steps, where the in between steps are understood to be included, even if they are not shown? Sorry, I know that sounds extra confusing, hehehe. But it was the first example I thought of, since I have taken alot of higher order math, hehe.

          2. I think that’s a pretty good way to think about it.

            Try this on for size: “The reason for creation and ‘why it exists at all, but also why it is what it is and not something else’ is ‘the ultimate love of God.’ This love is the very communion of love which constitutes the inner life of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As such, the love of God is also free and in his freedom God purposes not to live for himself alone, but to give life to a creaturely realm that which he can share the communion of love which he is. God is not remote, unknowable, aloof, or isolated from us. We are created from and for love and communion.” That’s a quote from one theologian (G. Zeigler) summarizing and quoting famous Trinitarian theologian T.F.Torrance.

            This is WHY God created. When God’s creation (us, as part of that) truly experiences and lives out God’s purpose, THAT is what brings glory to God. That and nothing else. The opposite is also true. When we act in unloving ways we bring the opposite of glory to God (dishonor? disrespect? disobedience?)

            Everything ultimately finds it’s ground and solution in love, because love is who God is, and what we are called to as God’s creation.

            Blessings!

  3. I think I am beginning to understand. I’m still not sure. So basically, when God says “for my glory”, is He almost like predicting (well, not predicting, since He already knows all things that will happen) but sharing what will happen when His creation that He made out of His love, reflects His character? Kind of in the same way, when He describes how the punishment given to a certain person will be passed onto their offspring generations, that He is not really punishing the future generations of that person, but the natural consequences of their behavior would be naturally passed onto their offspring, since the parents’ actions would shape their children’s actions, and so forth? But even still, if He wants us to reflect His character, isn’t His main motive for us to reflect His character, do that He will be glorified?

    1. You’ve got a couple of things in that response. Romans 1 lets us know that God is *big* into natural consequences. There Paul defines God’s wrath as “giving people over” to the natural consequences of their sinful cravings and actions. Natural consequences are part of how God created reality. In the same way, glory naturally is given to God when people acknowledge God, when people act in Godly (loving) ways, when people live deeply and passionately into who God made them to be. Banners and flags saying “God is SO great” are not necessary (and in fact are easily performative or false.)

      Now, your last sentence is one to look closely at. If God wants us to reflect God’s character, and that brings God glory, doesn’t that mean God’s motivation is for us to give God glory? Easy assumption. But it’s a matter of motive. We’re taught in John’s gospel that no one has seen the father except the Son, and that when we see the Son we see the father. That means that Jesus alone defines what God’s love looks like. Love, after the example of Christ, is co-suffering other-centered.

      Some people teach a self-centered God. That God would need glory, because that’s what matters most. But Jesus does not teach a self-centered God. Jesus demonstrated an other-centered co-suffering love, and told us this is what the Father is like. So, while all sorts of things give God glory, God’s prime motive is that love would increase. The more other-centered co-suffering love there is, the more God’s glory is shown BUT God’s not after getting more glory. God is after there being more love. Love is the motive; glory is the by-product.

  4. I kind of see your point. Although, I don’t quite understand your answer and how it relates to my second question of God wanting us to reflect His character to bring Him glory. Will you explain more?
    Thank you for sticking with me with this and being willing to answer my questions. I truly appreciate this conversation.

    1. This question? “But even still, if He wants us to reflect His character, isn’t His main motive for us to reflect His character, so that He will be glorified?”

      A great artist doesn’t create their art “in order to” get glory for their skill. If they are skilled, they may get glory, but that’s a side effect of the art. A great artist creates to express themselves, to say something significant, to bring beauty into the world, or some other deeper reason.

      God doesn’t need glory. God doesn’t do what God does to get praise and affirmation. God is perfect, and doesn’t need us to prop up a sense of power or goodness. God is these things through and through. What God wants, I think, is for us to be an expression of God’s character, and for that to be the case, God wants us to be holy. Another word is righteous. Righteousness or holiness in most simple terms mean living in ways that align with God’s will or character. God’s character, above all else is love. So when we align with that, we are living holy lives, and when we live lives that reflect God’s character, it gives God glory. God doesn’t want us to be loving “so that” God will get glory. God wants us to be loving because that’s God’s character and God’s purpose for the universe. It just happens that when we live in alignment with God’s beautiful character, that brings glory to God.

      Glory is the side effect. The steam of the boiled water. It’s what naturally happens when we live lives of other-centered co-suffering love.

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