Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 15, April 9 to April 15, 2006

Loving God without an Agenda

by Kevin C. Cobb

"Daddy, Daddy, what did you bring me?" These are the words I often heard upon arriving home when my daughter was two years old. Each time I showed up bearing gifts, she would give me a suffocating hug while exclaiming, "Thank you daddy. I love you!" But every time I walked through the door empty handed, as was routinely the case, she would immediately resume playing with her toys or watching television. She really wasn't interested in Daddy himself; she was in love with Daddy the toy-toting Santa Claus.

Now she is six years old and things have changed. She still listens for the garage door eagerly, but she is no longer preoccupied with the anticipation of adding to her ever-growing mountain of unnamed dolls and neglected happy-meal toys. She actually longs for my company. She wants to play with me. She wants to divulge the adventures of her day to me. She wants to probe me about my day.

I lie in the sun on a regular basis to keep my psoriasis under control. Diversely, my red-headed daughter needs to lather up with forty-five sun block simply to take out the trash in February. Nevertheless, she insists that I lie close to the patio so that she can lie next to me (in the shade) and pretend she is also getting a tan. Why? Because now she loves me, not for what I can give her but because I am her daddy. You could say she loves me for who I am.

As a toddler, she demonstrated love and gratitude in direct relation to my benevolence towards her. As she has matured, however, she has come to love me simply because I am daddy.

Most Christians never mature beyond the toddler stage of Christianity, idling contentedly with a love for God saturated in praise that acknowledges him solely for the blessings they receive — the key word here is solely. A love for God solely fixated on "what's in it for me?" short-circuits a Christian's progression towards a plenary love of God. Unfortunately, this underdeveloped expression of love is inadvertently endorsed and promoted wherever Christians congregate. An outward manifestation of this pervasive deficiency is evident in the lyrics of Christian music. The next time you attend a Christian worship service, regardless of music style or denomination, notice how the words I, me, my, our, and we are used disproportionately more often than references to God.

As beneficiaries of God's inexhaustible grace, we must cheerfully maintain an attitude of gratefulness. When our love of God is limited exclusively to thanksgiving, however, like my two-year-old daughter, we only love God for the things that directly benefit us. Christians typically begin the spiritual journey here, but to remain in this position stunts the growth of a developing child of God. With God's help we can take the next step into Christian maturity by loving God independently of what he does for us. When we love God's nature more than the fringe benefits that accompany our relationship with him, we will truly love God without an agenda.

I am not advocating that we spend less time and energy praising God for the many blessings he has lavished upon us, such as salvation, health and protection. I am asserting that we should spend more time and energy praising God for his nature independently of the benefits we inherit as his children. We need to offer more prayers of praise for who he is. We need to write and sing more songs that highlight his superior attributes. We need to meditate more often on Scripture passages that open up windows into God's character. We need to teach our children to love God independently of how he has blessed us.

The last five psalms serve as the grand finale to the entire collection, which culminates in splendid fashion in Psalm 150. This final psalm affords us the opportunity to witness a candid expression of authentic worship, unleashing thirteen "hallelujahs" in just six verses. In addition to this jubilant standing ovation, verse two gives us two distinct reasons why we should love God: "Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness."

First, the Psalmist states, we should love God for what he has done. Secondly, we should praise God for who he is. Finding a balanced praise of God prevents us from confusing the God of the universe with Saint Nicholas.

God has performed many acts that deserve and demand our praise. The Psalter consists of praises to God for his demonstration of compassion, mercy, and deliverance. Throughout the psalms we observe Yahweh as a caring God who extends his love to mankind. He helps the righteous in times of trouble. He comes to the rescue of the weak and needy. He demonstrates great patience. He dispenses amazing grace abundantly. Allowing these acts of power to pass without acclamation is unfathomable.

Often, however, our praise begins and ends with exaltation directed at the things God does for us. Why do we typically praise God? Usually, it is because God has blessed us. This is a good, healthy and appropriate response to his tremendous grace, but it is deficient as a complete testimonial of God's greatness.

After all, God was under no obligation to create humanity, let alone to provide a means for human redemption. God was perfect before he created or redeemed mankind. His benevolent actions toward the human race do not define who God is, but are only an extension of one aspect of his nature. God exists independent of our praise. Nevertheless, how else should we respond to his excellence and beauty? Let us resist complacently praising God solely for contributing to our personal betterment; let us also praise him for who he is.

This type of praise requires us to extend beyond the natural gratitude that accompanies God's blessings. We need to praise God additionally for who he is in himself, and to appreciate the character of God as being excellent independently of his contribution to our personal interests.

People comprehended God's essence by meditating upon the attributes that define him. We are most familiar with the divine attributes that benefit us most, such as love and mercy. God possesses many other qualities than benevolence, however, and these are due praise as well. We sometimes sing or hear about these qualities, but most of us are ignorant of their meaning. For example, God is infinite — this means that he is impervious to time or space restraints, that he is without limits. By spending more effort meditating on God's greatness, and less effort taking inventory of our personal stake in his greatness, we praise him more authentically.

When something is admirable, the proper response is praise. Conversely; to refuse to praise to something that is admirable is to fail to appreciate its greatness. The surfacing of humpback whales is an example of something that deserves this type of admiration. On a much grander scale, God is the ultimate object of admiration. Failure to recognize and appreciate excellence results in a deprivation of the joy humans were born to experience.

An object that elicits enjoyment necessarily brings praise upon itself. In Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis identifies the enjoyment of God and the glorification of God as one cogent act: "Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him." 1 Lewis describes praise as inner health made audible. We spontaneously praise what we value most, and we urge those around us to join. This phenomenon is evident everywhere in our culture. We are asked to praise gourmet coffee, sports teams, cuts of meat, television shows, oil filters, mattresses, and even favorite brands of toothpaste. The proselytizing of these vain preferences is socially acceptable; why shouldn't we nudge others to appreciate the infinite God of the Universe?

We are unable to maintain silence about the things we love and we don't understand how others do not share our unbridled enthusiasm. Praising what we enjoy completes our enjoyment and brings it to fulfillment. Lovers do not express admiration for one another merely as a compliment, but also to verbalize their inner enjoyment, thus bringing that joy to completion. It is frustrating to experience excellence or beauty without a fellow admirer to share it with. A golfer's nightmare is to get a hole-in-one while playing alone. Rare and precious glimpses of excellence, such as a baby's first tooth, scream for mutual attention, admiration and adulation. This is why strangers with a shared interest have an instant bonding experience in such circumstances.

Every spring I head to Lake Fork Texas in search of a trophy bass. One spring morning as I entered the bait shop I noticed a large aquarium housing a massive lethargic bass. My mouth was surely agape as I laid eyes on the gaudy fish. Simultaneously, a fellow fisherman, whom I had never met, was also mesmerized by this wonderful freak of nature. We both stared in awe at the antagonist of all our fishing dreams. Eventually, I heard myself speak: "Now that's a bass." My new friend simply replied, "Yep." Though dull and unoriginal, this exchange completed an inner satisfaction that only a fisherman can appreciate. The excellence and beauty possessed by the fish was much too grand to enjoy alone. I longed to hear someone other than myself acknowledge the exhilarating nature of this experience.

If praise is defined as a spontaneous outpouring of admiration and appreciation of greatness, as Lewis suggests, no New Testament story presents a more candid account of authentic praise than the one recorded in the Luke 24. Two men traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus demonstrated an authentic reaction to an encounter with the beauty and excellence of Christ. As they walked, Jesus joined them and began to explain the Scriptures to them. Although the men initially failed to recognize Christ, they were so attracted by his unmistakable possession of greatness and superior knowledge that they urged him to stay and spend more time with them.

As the men reflected back on what they now understood as an encounter with God, they were unable to conceal their praise: "They asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" 2 This is one of the most genuine expressions of praise in Scripture. The event impacted them so thoroughly that they immediately ran to share it with their colleagues. The men "returned at once to Jerusalem" to share this experience with the disciples. Although the twelve were unconvinced, the two men pressed on with their life-changing story. Later, when Christ appeared before the disciples, the two men where still clamoring about their brush with greatness.

To love God solely because he has loved us demonstrates a basic primal instinct. Christ tells us that this response is merely human nature: "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners' do that." 3 No response is more primitive than to return gratitude for favor. This is reminiscent of my daughter who instinctively flattered me when I brought gifts and ignored me when I came home empty-handed. To praise God solely or principally on the basis that he has blessed us indicates spiritual immaturity. In some cases, it might even be called "selfishness."

Through the centuries theologians have attempted to correct the tendency toward a self-serving love of God. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most influential Christian theologians in the development of Western Christian theology, insisted that an objective love of God should stand as the goal of all Christians, teaching that "the fulfillment and end of Scripture is the love of God and our neighbor." 4

In Bonaventure's Triple Way the Franciscan theologian describes six degrees of loving God, which culminate in a perfect love of God. This journey to pure love begins with a love of God based purely on self-serving motives, but finally arrives at a love of God so benevolent that the Christian values his neighbor's salvation over his own life.

Thomas Aquinas raised the question, "Whether out of charity God ought to be loved for himself?" He broaches this issue by approaching the question from four angles. After much theorizing, scrutinizing and philosophizing, he comes to the profound conclusion "yes." Rick Warren, the people's theologian of the 21st century, succinctly summarizes this concept by simply stating "it's not about me," implying that it's all about God. 5

One of the most passionate and insightful writers on the Love of God is the Great theologian and preacher of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards. In Religious Affections Edwards argues that a foundational love for God's nature must precede a love of God's resources.

If men's affection to God is founded first on his profitableness to them, their affection begins at the wrong end; they regard God only for the utmost limit of the stream of divine good, where it touches them and reaches their interest, and have no respect to that infinite glory of God's nature which is the original good. 6

Edwards' blunt style of preaching may have prevented him from landing a pastorate at a 21st-century mega-church or a Sunday morning television spot, but we would act in error by dismissing the veracity of his argument hastily.

When God is understood chiefly as a divine being who is preoccupied with making our life and eternity as victorious and comfy as possible; our image of God is skewed. Edwards suggests:

It is easy for them to own Christ to be a lovely person, and the best in the world, when they are first firm in it, that he, though Lord of the universe, is captivated with love to them, and has his heart swallowed up in them, and prizes them far beyond most of their neighbors, and loved them from eternity, and died for them, and will make them reign in eternal glory with Him in heaven. 7

In order to love God accurately it is essential that Christians know and praise his nature. Though these theologians have diverse ideas concerning the solution to this problem, they all stand united in urging Christians to distinguish God from his blessings.

It is one thing to accept the validity of this argument and quite another to spontaneously manufacture a love for God's nature. How does it happen? We are so steeped in this material existence that it is difficult to express love for God independent of the influence he has on our little corner of the world. His compassion is palpably demonstrated through his mercy towards us earthlings. His omnipotence is manifestly demonstrated through the creation and maintenance of this corporeal world, which is as complex as it is vast.

In the material world however, it is impossible fully to grasp the infinite perfection and glory of God. The best we can do is to meditate on his attributes that demonstrate his superiority, so far as we can glean these from Scripture. We praise God by identifying and meditating on his divine nature and attributes until we begin to be impressed and smitten by them. This impression is followed by a sense of awe and an aesthetic appreciation of God. Ultimately, genuine affections toward God begin to flow from our hearts. In much the same way a great renaissance painting raises our spirit by participating with excellence, we admire God as the perfect demonstration of existence. It is imperative to understand that this endeavor takes place under the total dependence on the Holy Spirit who must empower us to love him.

There are several ways to integrate the process of meditating on God's attributes into our daily lives. One effective way I have discovered is to compile a list describing several of God's attributes which describe his most essential qualities with which I am least familiar. A list can be obtained through your own study of Scripture. Simply read the Bible with an eye open for twelve stated or implied attributes of God. Assign a different attribute to each month of the year. Meditate on a divine truth throughout the month. When the next month arrives, begin daily meditation by briefly praising God for the previous attributes then proceed to the new attribute. During times of stress, anxiety, or celebrative praise, revisit previous attributes. At the end of a year, collect a new list, use the same list or retire some attributes and add some new ones. What appears first as a calculated commitment to manufacturing appreciation for God can gradually transform into a spontaneous and authentic expression of love for his very essence.


1. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 97.

2. Luke 24:32.

3. Luke 6:32-33.

4. Augustine, Contents of Christian Doctrine, ch. 35.

5. Rick Warren, A Purpose Driven life, p. 21 (cf. "it's not about you," p. 17).

6. Jonathon Edwards, The Religious Affections, pp. 168-9.

7. ibid, p. 171.