I received an email from a friend asking my thoughts on how it is we love God and how it is we know we love God. The initial email voiced a concern about loving the things God gives us vs. loving God for himself. Here is my response:
Thanks for contacting me with your question. I'd be happy to provide some preliminary thoughts.
It appears you posed a number of questions in your initial message:
What does it mean to love God?
What causes me to love God?
How does one love God?
Why does one love God?
While these are four different questions, I think I can condense your inquiry down to a single question: What is a biblical motivation for our loving God? I could have also asked the question "What is a God-honoring motivation for loving God?" My answer will be in two parts: 1) We love God because who he is, and 2) We know who he is because how he reveals himself to us.
We love God because who he is. You touched on this in your message when you said "My own conclusion to this is that we see the loveliness of God within the gifts he gives us..." This is exactly right, and it is supported in every book of Scripture and by experience. The things God gives us (everything) are intended not as ends but as symbols, moments, opportunities, words, revelations, songs, vehicles, or whatever metaphor you'd like, which point us or bring us to God. At the beginning and end of every gift is a giver, and the purpose of every gift is to lead us into greater intimacy with the giver. You give your wife a gift, because you want her to love that gift, but more than that, you want her to love you with greater joy and intimacy because of the gift you gave, when you gave it, and how you gave it. You give your children gifts, not so they would take the gift and ignore you, but so that your fellowship with them would be greater than before you gave the gift. God speaks the world into existence moment by moment, because he is a groom who has called a bride. And that bride is to ultimately delight in the groom, to follow every gift back to the groom's face, the groom's character, the groom's virtue, the groom's intrinsic beauty. If she does not, she is a harlot, who delights in the groom only for his utility to her.
We know who God is because how he reveals himself to us, and so we also love the things he gives us. The interesting thing about the question, and about what many Christians believe, is that we have adopted what some call a "soft dualism." We all but ignore the fact that God created the material world and reveals himself by it. I took a class on the body in graduate school. I can share some of those books with you, but the class was a paradigm changer for me. It caused me to see that having bodies is not just incidental in the Christian view of things; it is essential; it is blessed; it is good and redeeming. It is necessary. This is proven in Christ's Incarnation, throughout his earthly ministry, and in his passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and session. Some have called this "Incarnational Humanism." It's a beautiful concept. And the idea, in summary, is that we love the things of this world, the things of humanity, because Christ came to redeem them, to sanctify them as his own, and because when seen rightly, good gifts bring our hearts and imaginations and souls and bodies to Christ. So, while Christ's kingdom isn't an earthly kingdom, as some of the Jews suspected, it is an earthy kingdom. It is a kingdom, a realm of glory, that is materialistic, in the denotative sense.
To restate what you said in your email, "My own conclusion to this is that we see the loveliness of God within the very gifts he gives us (a sunrise, my wife's embrace, my child's laughter, crickets under a full moon, etc.) and therefore I love Him through these 'declarations of his glory' as the psalmist says." This is quite right, and you should lean into developing this more in how you see things. It is one of the greatest missing doctrines in our contemporary churches. We may call this the doctrine of the Lordship of Christ. I'll save the details, but in short it says that to the Christian, and even often to the natural, unredeemed man, everything is a moment of grace, a moment of God revealing his love to us. Oh, if we could see it. As we follow every gift to his hand, we need not fear that enjoying the gift for the sake of the giver may lead to idolatry. We always risk idolatry, but the antidote to it is precisely this: we love creation because it ultimately brings us to the Creator, who is the source of all beauty and goodness and truth and joy and happiness and delight. John Piper called this kind of thing "Christian hedonism."
I would take one step further, though, and say that it is only by truly loving what God gives us do we prove our love for God. As Christians we are not Platonists or ascetics. We do not set oursleves up in our rooms day in and day out, strip ourselves of all we have, and say we are searching for a pure and formless love for God. To love God is to respect, honor, care for, maintain, beautify, redeem, sanctify, bless, and be obedient with the things he has given us. We saw this in Adam. How did Adam show his unfallen love for God? He physically took care of what God gave him. It is an active love, a material love. Loving our neighbor is the most obvious expression of this, and the most concrete expression of loving our neighbor is being a part of the local church, the local body of Christ. It is the same way with being a father or husband. How do you know your children love you? Because they care for the things you've given them, and they respect your voice. How do you know they respect your voice? You see their atoms rightly handle other atoms. They also show you physical affection. All these are bodily things. The opposite is also true. How do you know your children do not love you? They do with the stuff precisely what you asked them not to do with the stuff (i.e. they disrespect your wife, they punch the walls, they key the car, they use their vocal chords to shame you, they waste the money you gave them, etc.). All love for God is a biblical love for things on this earth, but not all love for the things of this earth is a love for God. That last point is important for you to ponder, based on what you expressed in your email.
A Trinitarian love. The highest form of love, love perfected, is not in how God loves us or in how we love God, but in how God loves himself. There is a love eternally subsisting between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is an ontological love, an essential love, a love of being, and it is ultimately a love based purely on self-giving. The Father loves the Son, not because of the Son's obedience to the Father, but because of the Son's essence, his nature, which is in perfect submission to the Father. Out of the essence of the Son we have that he was begotten of the Father and therefore was perfectly obedient to the Father, obedient even to death on a cross. So notice the play between "the Son loved in himself" and "the Son being revealed to us and manifested in his earthly obedience." Does the Father love the Son in himself? Yes! Does the Father love the Son for his earthly obedience? Yes! This is love perfected, the kind of love we ought to have for God and our neighbor. We love our neighbor because the image of God dwells therein, because God has loved my neighbor, and because God calls me to love my neighbor. But because they are my neighbor, there will be earthly transactions happening between us (time and space and matter), and I ought not to be afraid that the love shared is a bodily and material love, a love of action and humanity, for Christ showed us how this should look, in bodily form. There is much to be said here, but that should suffice for now.
In all this you are right to be careful about what you love and why. The heart is deceitful, and we can think we are loving God when really we love how God makes us feel, what God does for me. One litmus test for this is heaven. I once heard a pastor ask, "If Jesus were not in heaven, would you still want to go there?" It causes us, especially those raised in the south with all kinds of religious lingo, to check our affections, to check the motivations and end of our desires. If I want to go to heaven simply because I'll see and party with all my loved ones, I neither understand heaven nor do I understand love. I am merely appropriating some religious idea for my own benefit.
Regarding little things and our love for God, I write more here and here and here.
To summarize, because we are embodied beings, knowing God is bound up in time and space and matter. That is to say, we cannot separate knowing God from what God gives us. To know what God gives us (our bodies, our children, the natural world, intelligence, art, friendship, etc.) is to know God and how he has chosen to reveal himself to us. We are right to love the things God gives us, because in giving them to us, God gives us himself. And we love them not in themselves, but because they lead us to God. For certainly, there is basis neither in Scripture nor in experience which testifies that we ought to hate the things God has given us, especially if he has given them to us to love. To say it another way, I don't love God because he is useful; I love God because he is God. It just so happens that loving God is also the most beneficial and useful thing to a human.
A complimentary question, by the way, to the one explored here is "Why do I hate sin?" The ultimate answer should be, "I hate my sin--not because it makes me feel bad, though it does, and not because it can get me in trouble with others, though it can, and not because it shrivels my soul and causes others pain, though it does. I hate my sin for all this, but I ultimately hate my sin because it draws me away from the blessed presence of my holy and loving Father, in whom my soul delights." So, why do I love my children? Not because they are enjoyable people, though they are, and not because God commands I do so, though he does, and not because it makes my wife a happier person, though it does, and not because it will likely give my children greater success as humans, though it will, and not because it will be a blessing on their future community, though it will. These are all benefits of loving my children, but the greatest reason I love my children is because it brings me closer to God (and it brings them closer to God), to be obedient with one of the greatest gifts God has given me. When I am faithful with God's gifts, God draws near, and this is the greatest gift, that God gives himself to me. And as he gives himself to me, I want even more to give myself to my children. Oh, blessed cycle.
I so happen to be working on a reading guide to Augustine's Confessions. If you have not read Confessions, you should get together a group of men and go for it. It will answer many of the questions above, and even raise some wonderfully new ones. In short, Augustine spends the majority of his life purposefully walking away from God, the Christian God his mother faithfully followed. Augustine became a renowned rhetoric professor throughout the Roman Empire. Through a series of important moments in his life, his disbelief is first suspended and then ultimately overcome by a great belief in and love for the Triune God. Augustine wrote Confessions later in his life as a Bishop of Hippo, and there are two main themes you can follow in the text: 1) How and why does the soul long to journey to God, who is our home, and 2) What does it mean to love God and why?
Thank you again for reaching out on this, and I hope what I've provided blesses your path ahead.
Christ in All, All in Christ,