Countless times in the last 20 years I have heard or read someone giving advice to Christians to look themselves in the mirror and repeat this paraphrased scripture: “I am the beloved of God, in whom he is well-pleased.”
There is something profoundly true about this: it reflects the heart of the gospel and points to the foundation of our spiritual formation journey. This is the good news of Christ Jesus for a rebellious and wrecked humanity.
This theology is one of the single strongest themes in the writing of Dutch spiritual writer Henri Nouwen. In the book The Life of the Beloved, for example, he says that “Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence” and it is “the origin and fulfilment of the life of the Spirit.”
Still, I never was fully comfortable with this theology and practice, and I knew it was more than my own hang-up about sentimentality. It had to do with how the phrase of being “Beloved” can be easily misconstrued in a narcissistic culture where we are subject to literally thousands of ads per day, and where the Therapeutic Self absorbs most of the space on our personal screens.
For example, you will find the same pastoral advice comes in Joseph Prince’s Destined to Reign: The Secret to Effortless Success, Wholeness and Victorious Living (2007). Prince is a megachurch pastor at New Creation Church in Singapore and the prosperity theology that surrounds his teaching gives “you are the beloved of God” a materialistic gloss that mimics our commercialized culture where it’s “all about you.”
“His favour is all over you,” he promises, and this is the message from page one. “You are called by the Lord to be a success, to enjoy wealth, to enjoy health, and to enjoy a life of victory.” He says later: “Feed on his love for you and receive from him exceedingly abundantly above all that you can ask or think!”
There is some truth in these chipper phrases, but they miss a few key theological pieces. Personally, the shadow of a traumatic car accident in my younger days falls across my timeline, and any theology that assumes being “Beloved” means safety, let alone health and wealth, rings hollow. To anyone who has suffered a wrenching personal loss or undergone a world-shattering tragedy, “You are God’s beloved” may lack credibility without some clear Biblical context. What intends to offer pastoral grace may lack pastoral truth.
Making Belovedness Real
First of all, the passage quoted in the “Beloved” doctrine refers to Jesus’s baptism, when God says “This is my Beloved Son, on whom my favour rests” and the Holy Spirit dove hovers above Jesus. The love in question is the love circle of the Trinity – between Father and Son through the Spirit, and while we are invited into this circle of love, we are not the centre of the picture.
Secondly, the phrase only offers comfort because we are sinners living in a broken world, shaken by an antithesis. Life is a struggle with powerful forces of darkness – between God’s kingdom and Satan’s, between our obedience and our rebellion. We are quick to identify with Jesus’ sweet scene of baptism but conveniently leave out what follows: 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil.
Thirdly, “being Beloved” in a consumer world can conveniently miss the cross. Our belovedness led God to sacrifice himself at great cost, and he calls us similarly to “take up our cross.” I spoke with my spiritual director about how “You are my Beloved” did not sit comfortably with me, especially in light of how randomly brutal life can be. He responded: “You could be the beloved of God and still be crucified.”
Suddenly a light went on for me. Being beloved becomes so desperately vital because we are broken and beaten. Being beloved comes with an other-centred mission. Yes. This encompasses our tragic amputations, alienated relationships and crushed dreams rather than denying them. This resonates with the dozens of lament Psalms, the life of Job and the questions of Ecclesiastes, and what the catechism tells me about “how great my sin and misery are.” Yes, yes.
In conclusion, when I teach spiritual formation, I urge my students to expand the belovedness phrase, and say rather “we are the beloved of God, bumbling and be-deviled, called to follow Christ in death, in order to rise again for Spirit-led mission.”
That can be a mouthful, but context is everything in our consumer culture. Even when reading Nouwen, who is so wonderfully vulnerable about his loneliness, pain and insecurity, we can sometimes get lost in our insatiable neediness.
Nouwen is aware of this temptation to self-preoccupation and names it often. This is why he explains that we are the Beloved, but also that we are to become the Beloved. It is both gift and task. We receive in order to give; we heal in order to serve. With the dove at our side, we are to manifest our Belovedness in the everyday, nitty-gritty of our lives, not for our narcissistic need, but for the common good and God’s glory.
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