Does God love some people more than others? Does God have favorites?
This is an old, disputed question with centuries of history: Is there a chosen race? Are some people predestined for heaven or hell? Does God love the poor more than the rich? Does God love sinners more than the righteous? Does God love virgins more than married persons?
On the surface, at least, it would seem that scripture suggests that God loves some people more than others. But is this true?
The question is hard to answer because partly it’s a false one. Generally whenever we set up these kinds of oppositions – does God love this person more than that person? – we are formatting the issue in a wrong way.
For example, when Jesus tells us that there is more joy in heaven over the conversion of one sinner who has strayed than over 99 others who seemingly have no need of repentance, he is not affirming that God loves sinners more deeply than righteous persons. For Jesus, speaking in this specific context, there are no righteous persons. There are only sinners (people who feel their need for conversion) and self-righteous persons (people who are sinners and have not yet acknowledged their need for repentance). Conversion, at least in this particular context, is not a precondition to the Christian life. It is the Christian life. There are no righteous persons, only sinners, and the Christian journey is always a journey of conversion, a returning to the fold. We open ourselves to receive the love of God whenever we are conscious of that. God does favor sinners, but that includes all of us.
The same is true regarding whether God loves the poor more than the rich. Jesus tells, seemingly without equivocation, that God has a preferential love for the poor, but does that mean that God loves the rich less?
Again, we must be careful in how we contrast these categories: poor versus rich. What’s being affirmed is not that God loves us better when we are poor than when we are rich. Rather the idea is that God loves us in our poverty – and that we more easily let ourselves be loved and more easily express gratitude when we acknowledge our poverty. For Jesus, there are only two kinds of persons: Those who are poor and those who are not yet in touch with their own poverty. And it’s not that God prefers us to be poor and loves us better when we are poor. Rather it’s when we are poor and in touch with our poverty that we more easily invite in love, both that of God and that of others. God does favor the poor, but if we truly know our own condition, that’s all of us.
The same principle needs to be applied to questions surrounding holiness and sexuality. Does God love us better when we are sexually inconsummate than when we are not?
The Gospels emphasize that Jesus was born from a virgin womb, that he was buried in virgin tomb, and that we are invited to have a virginal heart. Because of this, inside of Christian spirituality as well as in the spiritual traditions of all the great world religions, there has always been a stream of thought that suggests that God somehow blesses the celibate life more than the non-celibate life, that virginity is the preferred spiritual state. Does God love us more when we are virgins?
Again, we must be careful in how we contrast the categories: virgin and non-virgin. What’s being taught is that God loves what is virginal inside of us. The contrast is not between those who sleep alone and those who don’t, but between those who protect what is virginal inside of themselves and those who don’t, and between those who can sweat blood so as to carry the tension of living without consummation (of all kinds) and those who cannot. It’s when we protect what is virginal inside us and when we don’t short-circuit life’s proper innate rhythms because of our tensions that we open ourselves up more to receive love – God’s love and human love. God does favor virgins, but if we live our lives with the proper reverence and patience, that includes all of us.
The same thing might be said about Jesus’ holding up little children as an ideal. He is not teaching that God loves children more than adults. The contrast is not between little children and grown-ups, but between those who, like little children, know their need for help and those who because of pride or wound no longer admit their need for God and others. It’s when we admit the deep truth that we are not self-sufficient that we open ourselves up, preferentially, to be loved by God and others. God does favor those who are childlike, but hopefully that includes all of us.
Does God play favorites? Yes, but not between and among different persons, but between and among different states inside our own souls.
Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on www.RonRolheiser.com. It is re-published with permission.