Monday, August 31, 2009

God is the Gospel: Exploding the Doctrine of Man-Centered Love

This is the second (or third, depending on whether you count the introduction) post on commenting on John Piper's God is the Gospel. Last time, I considered what I believed to be the thesis of Piper's book, namely, that God Himself is His greatest gift to us, and that all the lesser gifts He gives to us should be received and enjoyed for His sake.

Foundational to our understanding this concept, and certainly foundational to our applying this God-centered, God-is-the-Gospel worldview to our lives, is the explosion of the man-centered doctrine of the world that has crept into our churches, and through them into our minds and hearts. In particular, today I want to consider the "man-centered view of love [that] permeates our culture and our churches" (p. 12).
The sad thing is that a radically man-centered view of love permeates our culture and our churches. From the time they can toddle we teach our children that feeling loved means feeling made much of. We have built whole educational philosophies around this view of love -- curricula, parenting skills, motivational strategies, therapeutic models, and selling techniques. Most modern people can scarcely imagine an alternative understanding of feeling loved other than feeling made much of. (p. 12)
Is that true of you? Think about how you think about being loved, or feeling loved. Meditate on that. What makes you, in the depth of your soul, feel loved?

Piper is saying you may not even realize it, but you and I have been programmed by our society to think about love in a way that is entirely unbiblical, and therefore entirely false. We are programmed to think that loving someone means making much of them. If a child does well on a report or project in school, he comes home looking to be celebrated by his family. If a husband gets a commendation at work, he brings it home to his wife and is satisfied when she beams with pride over how capable her husband is. If I teach a good Sunday School lesson, I go to my wife to tell me how great of a job I did. And in all those cases, if those things don't happen, we don't feel loved.

The Hypocrisy of Man-Centeredness

The sad thing is not only do we have hopelessly wrong views on what it means to be loved, but then we ascribe those false views on love to God's love, and we make Him into a god made in our image. Consider perhaps the chief manifestation of this:
Perhaps you have heard people say how thankful we should be for the death of Christ because it shows how much value God puts upon us. (p. 137)
Ever heard that before? Ever said that before? "God loved us so much that He gave up what was most precious to Him -- His own perfect Son! -- just to be with us!" One commenter on a blog I read often said something similar to the above and concluded, "The Cross screams our value." But what is at the root of such thinking, really?
In other words, they are thankful for the cross as an echo of our worth. What is the foundation of this gratitude? Jonathan Edwards calls it the gratitude of hypocrites. Why? Because "they first rejoice, and are elevated with the fact that they are made much of by God; and then on that ground, [God] seems in a sort, lovely to them. ... They are pleased in the highest degree, in hearing how much God and Christ make of them. So that their joy is really a joy in themselves, and not in God."

It is a shocking thing to learn that one of today's most common descriptions of the cross -- namely, how much of our value it celebrates -- may well be a description of natural self-love with no spiritual value.
(p. 137)
Being thankful for the cross because of how much it makes of me is the gratitude of hypocrites! Feel the weight of that condemnation, friends. Remember all the connotations of and all the uses of the term hypocrites in Matthew 23. You are a hypocrite of the worst sort if you take the supreme display of the worth of God and turn it into the supreme display of the worth of man! You glory in the cross because you glory in yourself. You feel loved because you think the cross is designed to make much of you.

"It's Only Natural"

And you're in good company. The whole of fallen humanity agrees with you.
The God-centered love of God is foreign to fallen human beings, especially those who, like most of us, have been saturated for decades with doctrines of self-esteem. We have absorbed a definition of love that makes us the center. That is, we feel loved when someone makes much of us. Thus, the natural, human definition of love is making much of someone. The main reason this feels like love is that it feels so good to be made much of. (p. 149)
Did you catch that? This view of love as making much of someone is the natural, human definition of love. Let me let Piper continue. Same paragraph:
The problem is that this feels good on wholly natural grounds. There is nothing spiritual about it. No change in us is needed at all to experience this kind of "love." This love is wholly natural. It operates on the principles that are already present in our fallen, sinful, and spiritually dead souls. ... The ground of natural love is finally me, not God. If you make much of me, I feel loved, because I am the final ground of my happiness. God is not in that place. He should be, but He is not. That is what it means to be unconverted and natural. The deepest foundation of my happiness is me. (p. 149)
The problem with viewing love as being made much of is that that is the natural, fallen, product-of-the-curse definition of love. You don't need to be spiritual to believe that about love. Which means you don't have to be converted to believe that about love! There is nothing Christian or Biblical about it! Consider these verses:
  • John 3:6 - That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14 - But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
First, Jesus tells us that fleshly, natural things only come from flesh. And spiritual, heavenly things only come from the Spirit. You can't get spiritual things from the flesh. Then, Paul tells us that a fleshly, natural man cannot accept spiritual things. They are spiritually appraised, and he's only of flesh.

Do you see, then, how these words from God intersect with this discussion? Your definition of love is fleshly! It's natural! You don't have to be born of the Spirit -- that is, you don't have to be saved -- to believe that to love someone is to make much of them. But the Spiritual definition of love -- God's definition of love -- requires not just that you change your thinking, not just that you read a couple of books (or blog posts!) about what love really is, but it requires that you be born of the Spirit! Do you want to know what true love is? Well, you must be born again!


To love someone is not to make much of them. To be loved is not to be made much of. That is man's definition of love. And though we ascribe and apply that definition of love to God -- even though churches and pastors ascribe and apply that definition of love to God -- it is not love. It is disguised self-love. It is not finding your greatest satisfaction and joy in Jesus Christ. It is finding your greatest satisfaction and joy in yourself and using Jesus to worship yourself.

The Cross is not a heaven-sent mirror we can look into and admire ourselves and see how much we're worth. Forsake such thinking.

"What is the Cross, then?" you ask? "What is God's definition of love?" Come back on Friday for the next post in this series. But hopefully, if you've read my blog for any amount of time, you can guess where I'm going with this. ;o)


olan strickland said...

Amen Mike! To know the divine definition of love one must be born again as you say. I was preaching on God's Extraordinary Love yesterday morning from Romans 5:6-8 showing it to be much higher and greater than this man-centered love of the world.

However, what is so interesting is that in order to understand God's love it must be experienced as a blessing of justification - Romans 5:5, "...the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us."

The cross doesn't show how loveable we are; it shows how loving God is!

Mike Riccardi said...

Amen, Olan!

And so if justification is required to know God's love, and knowing God's love is a prerequisite for our knowing how to love, what does that say about the unbeliever's capacity to love? To love their spouse? To love their children?

olan strickland said...

The same as all other categories - they fall short of the glory of God!

Mike Riccardi said...

Indeed, they are condemned to 'loving' only with this natural, fleshly definition of making much of each other.

The reason why that stings -- the reason why it should offend the death out of the unbeliever and at the same time cause the compassion of the believer to overflow into urgent evangelism -- is that what many of the unbelieving world consider the highest virtue attainable (love) isn't virtuous at all. That kind of love cheats the would-be objects of that love and deflects their hearts from what will most satisfy them, most benefit them: the glory of God. But that vision of God's glory is snuffed out by the vision of one's own glory when they're made much of by a "loved" one.

That's so unbelievably sad! How far this curse has extended! In the very moment in which people believe they're loving their family and friends, they are, practically and functionally, hating them.

Oh, unbeliever! Do you want to know love? Do you want to be able to love? Then we bid you come to the God who is Love! For you will know love not a minute before, nor a minute after, you know Him!

Mark said...

I love to reflect on Ephesians 1:12: 'to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory'. Clearly He is not to the praise of our glory, but we are to His!

Pretty stark - and wondrously clear, when you think about it. I just love how Scripture explains Scripture...

Mike Riccardi said...

Amen, Mark!

It's everywhere!

Thanks for that reminder and thanks for commenting!