A saying sometimes heard in theological discussions is “ought does not imply can.” That is, simply because we ought to do something does not always mean we can meet that obligation. If I swing from the light-fittings, and in the process break both it and my leg, my landlord can demand that I fix those light-fittings. With my leg in plaster, I am not able to fix the light, though I still have the obligation to do so. It was my own fault that the light is broken; it is is my own fault that I am unable to meet the obligation. I ought, but I cannot.
We ought to love God for His beauty, but can we simply will to do so? The problem with a command to desire God ultimately is that our desires are not under our immediate control. The presence of the command does not imply innate ability on our part, or that a sheer act of will could produce it. The Great Command is an obligation, but ought does not always imply can. You can tell someone to love something, but no one can will himself to love something he does not. Desires are shaped and developed, not switched on and off by raw volition. Scripture enjoins us to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Ps 34:10). Desires are shaped not merely through the knowledge that we ought to have them, but by the very experience of them.
We are moral beings with the capacity to perceive beauty, and therefore we have a moral duty to treat God as he is. The problem with man is, though he has a natural ability to see beauty, and understand that God is most beautiful, he lacks the moral ability to love God. His sin has twisted him, deformed him, and ruined him, so that he loves the wrong things. He is not without the ability to love or admire or see beauty. He could turn to God if he wanted to. The problem is, he doesn’t want to. He will not. He is naturally able, but morally unable. His selfish desires will cause him to freely reject God at every opportunity. This is the great obstacle to loving God.
Here is the paradox of Christianity. As practical imperatives for here and now the two great commandments have to be translated “Behave as if you loved God and man.” For no man can love because he is told to. Yet obedience on this practical level is not really obedience at all. And if a man really loved God and man, once again this would hardly be obedience; for if he did, he would be unable to help it. Thus the command really says to us, “Ye must be born again.” Till then, we have duty, morality, the Law.1
In light of this, the only way that we can begin to love God ultimately is if God regenerates us. God must do the miraculous work of opening blind men’s eyes, drawing them to Jesus Christ, so that they repent of sin, turn to Christ and trust him entirely and are regenerated and justified. In “Treatise on Grace”, Jonathan Edwards writes that “the first effect of the power of God in the heart in regeneration, is to give the heart a divine taste or sense, to cause it to have a relish of the loveliness and sweetness of the supreme excellency of the divine nature.”2
From this initial work, God then begins the process of progressively changing the person, putting off the old loves, putting on the new ones, growing the newborn Christian’s love for God and apprehension of his beauty.
If love is a desire, then love cannot simply be willed into existence. The will plays a part, but Scripture (along with reason and experience) shows us three ways that ultimate love for God is created, grown and shaped: nature, exposure, and nurture.
Our natures determine much of our desires. What we inherit from Adam, and from our biological ancestors, partly determines what we desire. Unless our very natures are miraculously transformed, we are without power to love God ultimately, and without the position or tools to pursue God. The effect of the Gospel upon our relationship with God, and our potential to abide in Him, is foundational to loving God. Being goes before doing, though doing influences being. We must first understand how God has changed us in our being – our state and position before him. Unless we understand God’s love for us, our position in Christ, and the potential to abide in him, our pursuit of loving God may devolve into will-worship. This will be our first intensive study.
Exposure refers to how tastes are developed by partaking. Our joys develop partly through being exposed and either immediately, or through repeated exposure, gaining a delight (and possibly even need) for the object. A desire for God grows through exposure to God. If we pursue more exposure to the beauty and sufficiency of God, that very experience will stimulate and create more desiring love for God. Here we will consider how communion with God works both in private, and in public. The second portion of our study will consider the process of communion and the disciplines that undergird it.
Nurture refers to all the cultivating influences in our lives that teach and exemplify what is to be loved, pursued and enjoyed. Once the Gospel has transformed our natures, there are cultivating influences to be pursued: the church, the family, and other shaping, cultivating forces in culture. Though we do not have final control over any of these, we should do what we can to experience the right formation of love for God in each of these. Our third section will consider the how our desires are shaped through example and participation.