What Do We Really Mean When We Say We Love God?

I really didn’t want to go to hell.

I suspect my peers felt the same way. Those of us who grew up in the post-Jesus Movement and late evangelistic crusade era of American evangelicalism knew that we were sinners and knew that, as a result, we deserved to go to hell. The altar calls and Judgment House productions made that clear.

So, the proposition before me was simple. Pray the sinner’s prayer or go to hell. If I prayed that prayer, God would meet a massive need for me. I would be forgiven. Because Jesus had taken my place on the cross, my sins wouldn’t be counted against me. I needed that. I needed God. And I appreciatively took him up on his offer.


Did I love God? Did this glad acceptance of the offer of forgiveness through Christ equate to love? In a sense, it did—the kind of love C.S. Lewis calls “need-love.” “need-love,” wrote Lewis, “cries to God from our poverty” (The Four Loves, 21). This is not altogether a bad or weak or inauthentic kind of love, for, as Lewis further notes, “our whole being by its very nature is one vast need” (Ibid., 4).

A great part of our love for God, then, must always be need-love, a kind of love that says “I love you because you can do something for me.”

But need-love is not the only kind of love for God. Indeed, after my conversion to Christianity I became more and more familiar with another kind of love. As elementary school turned to junior high, and junior high to high school, I heard more and more about a new kind of love for God—what Lewis calls “gift-love.”

Here, I was called not to ask what my God can do for me, but what I can do for my God. “What big things are you going to do for God?,” we were asked at my evangelical school chapels. This kind of love, Lewis wrote, “longs to serve, or even to suffer for, God” (Ibid., 21).

Again, this is not a bad thing. I suspect that every person who has truly been changed by the grace of God in Christ responds with gratitude. And how is that gratitude shown? In large part by obedience! “If you love me, you will keep my commands,” Jesus said (John 14:15). It’s good to respond to God’s love by wanting to do something for him, to live your life for him.

Need-love and gift-love were the marrow of the Christianity of my youth, and these two things are a part of the love of God. But the love of God is not complete with these two. In fact, there are subtle lies often smuggled in by these two kinds of love, lies that can distort one’s entire view of God, self and the Christian life.


The lie of need-love is that God is a means to an end, rather than an end in himself. We’re faced with a deficit in ourselves. We have a great, eternal need. That need can be met. And once met, then what? It might seem we no longer need the One who met the need. God has been a means to the end of forgiveness. This is a utilitarian Christianity, and it explains why so many can pray a sinner’s prayer, be baptized and never again darken the door of a church or crack open a Bible.

The lie of gift-love is that God is weak and is himself in a position of need-love toward us. When we begin to talk of doing great things for God, we can subtly imply that without our great feats, he will be unable to accomplish his mission. That if not for us, he might be in dire straits, and how lucky he should feel to have such a great evangelist, preacher, servant, missionary, neighbor, mom or dad like me in his army.

But what does God need? God needs nothing. He is not served by human hands. His invitation to give our lives to his mission is just that—an invitation. Who really gains from our service to God? Is it him, or is it us? His position is not changed by our participation in his mission; ours is. It is we who become more like Jesus, who become more infatuated with God, who grow in our neighbor love, whose hearts become more aligned to his kingdom as we participate in his mission. God does not need us.


These two subtle lies can be avoided with the introduction of a third kind of love for God, a love that I so unfortunately did not have and was not taught in my youth: what Lewis called appreciative-love. “Appreciative-love says: ‘We give thanks to thee for thy great glory.’ … (It) gazes and holds its breath and is silent, rejoices that such a wonder should exist even if not for him” (Ibid., 21–22).

Appreciative love, in other words, is to worship God for Godself. It is to be granted by the Holy Spirit the wonder and mystery of just a glimpse of God’s glory and to say yes, praise you, it is good that you are, even if nothing else is.

Appreciative love reforms need-love so that we no longer treat God as a means to an end, but as the end itself. We learn that in forgiving us, God isn’t giving us a get-out-of-hell-free card; he is giving us himself. Likewise, we learn that he doesn’t need anything from us, but rather invites us to participate in his life and his mission, such that to lay down our lives for him is to experience more of him, to actually receive.

Understanding and pursuing appreciative-love has changed everything for me, because it has made my Christianity not about me, but about God. Sadly, much of the evangelical Christianity of my youth, and of today, is not about God; it is about people. It makes God a means to some other end—my forgiveness or my prosperity or my nation or my happiness or my health—or it makes God a weak and needy beggar who can’t accomplish his purposes in the world because people are holding him back. But that is not who God is. Rather, the God who is says:

“Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool. Where could you possibly build a house for me? And where would my resting place be? My hand made all these things, and so they all came into being. This is the Lord’s declaration. I will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and trembles at my word.” – Isaiah 66:2

When we see this, we are undone; and we begin truly to love God.

This article originally appeared on LifeWayVoices.com and is reposted here by permission.

Taylor Combs
Taylor Combs

Taylor Combs is associate publisher of christian living and leadership books at B&H Publishing Group.