Loved by God and Intrinsically Valuable, Too
A Meditation on Grace, Love, and Worth
By Krista E. Hughes
The church marquis near my house reads, “God does not love you because you are valuable. You are valuable because God loves you.” This is a fairly classic Christian understanding of how and why humans have worth. Indeed, it is one way to articulate the central conviction that humans are beloved children of God, that one of God’s defining orientations toward creatures is Love.
Yet this particular articulation of how human worth and divine love are related bothers me. It wouldn’t be too strong to say that it grieves me. Similar articulations—in prayers, in sermons, in liturgies, on the lips of my students—have in the past moved me to tears… not tears of gratitude but ones of genuine grief.
There is a deep connection between worth and belovedness, but I believe that most Christianity has gotten that connection all wrong. Anyone who shares a process-relational worldview is likely to agree with me. Influenced by Alfred North Whitehead, we understand value as arising from the co-creative activity of God and creatures. In this regard, creatures themselves are a source of value in the world. By virtue of their very existence, always relational, creatures both bear and bestow value.
Classic Christianity’s message tends to be otherwise. Consider: while the marquis down the road declares us beloved, it also makes sure we know that we are not valuable in and of ourselves. We are valuable only because God, graciously, has chosen to love us. Otherwise, we have no worth. Implied is a Christian doctrine of grace that portrays divine love primarily (and possibly exclusively) as divine forgiveness of human sin. According to such doctrinal logic, humans, as sinners, have negative value; God’s loving mercy redeems humans from their sin and thereby redeems our value as well.
This is a real comfort to many Christians. And certainly it is a message we all need to hear under particular circumstances. If we live, because we live in relation, we are going to do harm to others and even to ourselves. It is good to know that God—or our spouse, our friend, our mother, our neighbor—will forgive the harms we have done. We need to know that regardless of our actions, we will be loved. But to declare that this is the primary or exclusive form that God’s love takes, it seems to me, seriously circumscribes the prodigality not only of divine love but of the cosmos itself and all the creatures within it. Over the years, I have come to call this notion of divine love “the grace of regardless,” which says that despite your brokenness and flaws and failings, despite your unworthiness, God loves you anyway.
This is a vital message in certain times and places, particularly when we have done harm. But in no way is it sufficient to describe either divine love or creaturely worth. Theologian Paul Knitter quotes his spiritual teacher Father Fringts, S.V.D., who said that “if a belief makes for bad psychology, it probably makes for bad theology” (Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 76). There is deep wisdom in this. I think, for example, of children who grow up in circumstances of neglect or abuse, in which they are not cared for in ways that allow them to thrive. In the worst situations, they are explicitly told that they are worthless and undeserving of what they are even minimally given. And they likely come to believe it is true, for their external circumstances confirm it. But does society agree? Of course not. We have laws, a department of social services, and a foster care system all premised on the conviction that every child has the right to circumstances that promote health and well-being, including love. In other words, we do not tie children’s worth to the whims of their parents’ affections and capacities.
Why, then, is this logic adequate to describe, for many to define, the very love and grace of God? Many would say, “Because God is not human! God is more trustworthy than humanity with its moods and whims!” (To which I would be tempted to say, “Have you read your Bible lately?!” My concern here is otherwise however.) To declare that our value resides only in someone else’s love for us—even if that someone else is God—alienates that value: the value is never our own. If our worth resides not in ourselves but in someone else’s disposition toward us, can we even be said to possess worth at all in that case? This is a crucial question, even if one confesses a God of steady providence who presumably would not withdraw love on a whim the way a human might.
Not only does such doctrine make for bad psychology, it is not comprehensively biblical. Sure we have Paul’s declaration that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). But we also have Jesus who assures his followers that the God who created the heavens and the earth is so lovingly attentive that God can also number the hairs on our heads in any given moment (Luke 12:7). This is a God who operates, in the words of Whitehead, according to the “tender care that nothing be lost.” Those of us in the Whiteheadian lineage might say that not only God but the Cosmos itself operates according to this principle of tender care. Grace, as divine disposition but also as cosmic reality, includes yet far exceeds “the regardless” and “the despite.” Grace declares intrinsic worth and preciousness. Period.
Let me be clear: Value and belovedness are certainly connected—vitally so. It is through loving relationships, coming to know that we are unconditionally loved, that we learn of and come to believe in our own value. But belovedness brings to light worth that is already present. Put philosophically, love does not effect an ontological change from worthlessness to worth; love instead prompts an epistemological shift in self-perception. Put theologically, love does not beget value and worth; rather love reveals them.
It is through God’s love and the love of others that we come to know that we have worth. In this respect, yes, we discover our worth in relation. It is in shared love with others that we create greater and deeper value in the world. In this respect, yes, we can bring about richer manifestations of value. But Grace declares that we bear worth prior to and independent of these things. Grace likewise declares that we bear worth regardless not only of our own actions, as classic Christianity proclaims, but of the affectional dispositions of others. By virtue of our creaturely existence, we are worthy. We are worthy of love, of compassion, of care, of mercy. Not because we are perfect or flawless. Not because we have earned it. We are worthy because that is our inheritance as unique, irreplaceable creatures of a prodigal Cosmos guided by a tender God. Yes, with—but also before and beyond—belovedness, we are creatures of inestimable, intrinsic worth. This is Grace’s message.