Wesley’s Revision of The Shorter Catechism, Part 3: How do we “enjoy God”?

November 17, 2016

jwc_the_shorter_catechism_front_cvr_smTo refresh your memory, the first article of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which Wesley endorsed without revision, is the following:

Question 1. What is the chief end of man?

Answer. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

A couple of years ago, on William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith podcast, Dr. Craig described a sermon he had recently heard, which attacked the commonplace idea that love is more “decision” than feeling:

I attended Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada. One of the pastors there is Erik Thoennes who is a Professor of Theology at Biola University. He is a very insightful theologian and a wise man. His text for his sermon was Hebrews 13:1, “Let brotherly love continue.” He gave a whole sermon on just those few words. The sermon was just filled with all sorts of nuggets of wisdom that I found very provocative and helpful. One of them was his criticism of the view that love doesn’t involve emotions. One will very frequently hear it said that love is not a feeling, love is a decision. This will often be said in marriage counseling situations, for example, where you may not feel love for your spouse anymore but you make a decision, “I will love her” (or “him”) and we will work through this problem.

Kevin Harris: Make a commitment.

Dr. Craig: Or with someone else that is particularly disagreeable – a boss or family member or even perhaps a persecutor. It is very often said that when we are commanded to love others – even love our enemy – that this is a decision. It is not some sort of emotional feeling. Thoennes was disagreeing with that, which has become I think sort of the conventional wisdom. He said this can lead to the attitude, “Well, I have to love you but I don’t have to like you.” So, you can regard other people in such a way that you don’t really have any affection or feeling for them, but you treat them in a loving way. He said that’s true – that with many people, we never can get past that point in our lives. There will be people for whom we never have the chance to really build an emotional bond of affection.

Kevin Harris: But we love them anyway.

Dr. Craig: Yes, we treat them in loving ways. We make a decision to act in a loving way toward them whether we have those feelings or not. And he recognized that. But he said if you think that that is all that love is – that that is the end goal of love – then he says you have fallen short. He says a full and mature love will involve a genuine affection for the other person. This is a reflection of the way that God loves us. He said that he’s afraid that many people may think of God’s love for them as a love that is without affection. They think, “Well, God loves me but he doesn’t really like me.” When you think of what that would do in your relationship to God, I think you can imagine how debilitating that would be if you think that God really doesn’t like you as a person. But he sort of tolerates you and loves you because he has to. It is almost as though if love were not an essential property of God, if he were freed from the necessity of loving you, then he really wouldn’t love you if he didn’t have to.

Kevin Harris: I have to put up with you – I’m God. I have to love you – I’m God. [laughter]

Laughter aside, when I heard this, it convicted me. I realized that I had unconsciously bought into this idea: that God loved me without really liking me—that God loved me because what choice did he have? Since justification is by faith alone—and I had this faith—then God was stuck with me. I never considered that God would enjoy having a relationship with me, sinner that I am.

In fairness, how could God enjoy me? Didn’t I learn in seminary about God’s impassibility—that horrible medieval doctrine that says that God cannot experience emotion because emotion would imply change, and God doesn’t change? So God loves me, but he feels nothing for me. It is love without affection, which isn’t the kind of love (if it’s love at all) that anyone enjoys. Parental love, friendship, and erotic love, all of which are deeply emotional, are also enjoyable.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Craig goes on to say that the feeling (or lack thereof) is often mutual: We feel nothing for God:

It occurred to me at the time I was listening that it may also be the case that not only do some Christians look at God that way, they may also have that kind of affectionless love for God. They give God his due but they don’t really like God. They will worship him, they will do the things that they are obligated to do, but they don’t really like God. That is really frightening. I talked to some people who are Christians I think who labor under that problem. They don’t really like God but they dutifully do their obligations. So this was really a thought provoking sermon for me.

Kevin Harris: Why wouldn’t they, Bill? Why wouldn’t they like God?

Dr. Craig: I almost hate to say it, but some people that I’ve talked to who come out of the Calvinistic and Reformed tradition . . .

Kevin Harris: You just had to go there, didn’t you?

Dr. Craig: I know, sorry. Because that is Dr. Thoennes’ tradition as well. Honestly, I’ve talked to people who come out of that tradition who I think deep down inside really harbor a kind of dislike of God because of his predestinarian, all-controlling activity. He is the one that is responsible for sending their loved ones to hell because that is the way he’s chosen to do it. You just give God his glory because it is due to him. Give God glory but you don’t really like a person such as God as described in that sort of theology.

Before I raise the hackles of my Reformed brothers and sisters, I hasten to add that many contemporary Arminians, otherwise known as United Methodists, also don’t like God, if for different reasons.

Why? Because they reject or at least water down the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. They believe that as much God hates evil and suffering in our world, he isn’t currently doing anything about it—except beckoning us to do something about it. One song perfectly capture this sentiment: “Christ has no hands but our hands to do His work today…” If the world is going to be a better place, it’s up to us.

In our personal lives, we also can’t count on God to do anything. Aside from his “being with us,” God simply lets events run their course. To believe otherwise—to dare to believe, contrary to sage bloggers and social media memes, that “everything happens for a reason”—is, reductio ad Hitlerum, to justify the Holocaust.

Obviously, from this point of view, it isn’t clear what prayer accomplishes—aside from “changing” us. And when Paul tells us to “give thanks in all things,” what are we thanking him for—that life will get better once we get to heaven?

While we may do our duty toward God, we’ll have a hard time “enjoying” him. At least I did. I was too busy grumbling and complaining. My life was too often characterized by resentment.

All that to say, the best thing that’s happened to my Christian thinking over the past five or six years is that I have embraced once again the doctrine of God’s sovereignty: God is ultimately in control of our universe, and our lives within it. Everything does happen for a reason—not in the Calvinistic sense that God decrees from all eternity what will happen; rather, since God in his foreknowledge knows what will happen under any circumstances, he is able to guide history to its conclusion, which includes causing, using, or otherwise redeeming every event in our lives for his purposes—one of which is the well-being of his beloved children.

How does this idea not accord, for example, with Genesis 45:5-7, Genesis 50:20, 2 Kings 19:21-28Ezra 8:22, Psalm 139, John 19:11Romans 8:282 Corinthians 12:7-10, Philippians 1:12-14, and James 1:2-4?

No Christian thinker has helped me understand this doctrine more than C.S. Lewis. For example, in God in the Dock, Lewis describes the danger that money, possessions, and other intangible “riches”—like good fortune, health, and popularity—pose to our souls. Therefore God may take these things away from us as punishment—or what we would call today “discipline”:

[I]f He doesn’t, you will go on relying on them. It sounds cruel, doesn’t it? But I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.[†]

“It’s not so bad,” indeed!

Even this year, I’ve experienced a lot of anxiety about my health—including a biopsy which returned a “suspicious” verdict from the pathologist before a second, larger sample ruled out cancer.

For someone who is already a borderline hypochondriac, this wasn’t easy for me. But I know that God allowed it to happen for a reason. For one thing, it forced me to my knees, which is always a good place to be. Because I believed that God was sovereign, I could regard my anxiety as “punishment”—or discipline—to teach me to trust in the Lord more.

So… Thank you, Lord Jesus.

Gratitude, I’m convinced, is the secret to “enjoying God.” And what makes us grateful like a God who is always working for our good?

C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble,” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.

6 Responses to “Wesley’s Revision of The Shorter Catechism, Part 3: How do we “enjoy God”?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    This is thought provoking. I think similar consideration could be given to “forgiveness.” Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe Jesus once said that we must forgive “from the heart.” But I think that we can conclude that the “feelings” are the “end goal,” not the “first step.” Just as with a child growing up, he first may obey out of fear of “the belt,” but we are hopeful that someday he will grow into obeying out of love or gratitude or appreciation for the parent.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yes, forgiveness “from the heart” is probably the same idea. If it’s from the heart, how does that not reach down to our emotions?

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I like that Brent. The knees are the one place where we really do get closest to acknowledging God’s sovereignty.

    As for the quality of love being decision or emotion, I think it’s a little of both. Think of the following “love statements”:

    1- “I love my wife/child more than I love my own life.” Where in one’s self is the repository for such love? It seems to me to be almost entirely emotion.

    2- “I love my country”. Love of country is huge for me. For others, I sense not so much. What is it that makes me swell with pride during a National Anthem combined with a roaring jet missing man flyover?

    3- “I love being in the mountains (or by the sea)”. There is a calmness, a peaceful happiness that accompanies certain places.

    4- “When I first saw my newborn child I felt an overwhelming
    sense of awe”. I just knew that there had to be a God, and I loved that God for this wonderful gift.

    One could go on and on examining the “love feelings” in our lives. My love of God is a mix of all of these things, because He is the true source of all of these happinesses.

  3. bobbob Says:

    I have often used this analogy: God is outside of His creation just like we are outside an aquarium. He can see all of it at once and can know how all the parts interact and how their decisions affect the overall outcome. He can influence it or not as He chooses as much as He desires. so we are in an aquarium of 10 billion people and he knows how all of those decisions affect the overall outcome, which is His glory, which is always the case.


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