The older writers often used terminology in a way that sounds odd to us. Two common theological descriptions of God’s love include “disinterested benevolence” and “complacent love.” They sound odd to us only because we tend to think of both of these terms in a negative way. To be “disinterested” to us would be to not be interested. To be “complacent” to us would be to be indifferent. But in standard theological books of not many years ago, “disinterested” meant to be discreet and lacking in self-acknowledgement while “complacent” meant to be satisfied and lacking in selfish desires altogether. There is a scene in an older novel where a rich man discreetly lends a poor family his carriage. When another discovers the good deed she replies “what disinterested benevolence!”
Is not this attribute of love described by our Lord when he instructed, But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly (Matt. 6:3)? The same is applied to our practices of prayer and fasting. We are instructed to do these secretly and discreetly, “disinterestedly” if you will, knowing that our reward is not in this life but in the next! In Luke 14:12-14 Jesus instructs us not to invite guests to dinner who are able to repay us by returning the invitation, but rather to invite those who cannot repay us at all so that we shall be recompensed at the resurrection of the just (Luke 14:14).
These two attributes of God give a unique addition to our thoughts at Christmas. God has given His Son to us disinterestedly, without thought of either pain or applause, because it was the just and holy thing to do. Jesus found, in obedience to the Father, a complacency of love so that He neither desired nor needed men’s approval but was wholly and completely satisfied in His fellowship with the Father.
Charles Finney gives the most complete definitions: “This love is disinterested in the sense that the highest well-being of God and the universe is chosen, not upon condition of its relation to self, but for its own intrinsic and infinite value.”1 He also defines complacency, which as “a phenomenon of will, consists in willing the highest actual blessedness of the holy being in particular, as a good in itself, and upon condition of his moral excellence.”2 Long before Finney, John Gill had objected to these terms being used of God,
“Some talk of a love of benevolence, by which God wishes or wills good to men; and then comes on a love of beneficence, and he does good to them, and works good in them: and then a love of complacency and delight takes place, and not till then. But this is to make God changeable, as we are: the love of God admits of no degrees, it neither increases nor decreases; it is the same from the instant in eternity it was, without any change.”3
The objection to God’s love having a “feeling” or an “ought” was that this would attribute to God a “passibleness” or the position of being in a passive mode and therefore being influenced by something outside of Himself. Such would mean that God had changed. Therefore it could not be an attribute of an immutable God.
But other theologians have disagreed with Gill, maintaining that for God to feel sympathy or good will toward His creatures is not out of keeping for an immutable God. Strong asks the question and then answers,
But does God feel in proportion to his greatness, as the mother suffers more than the sick child whom she tends? Does God suffer infinitely in every suffering of his creatures? We must remember that God is infinitely greater than his creation, and that he sees all human sin and woe as part of his great plan. We are entitled to attribute to him only such passibleness as is consistent with infinite perfection. In combining passibleness with blessedness, then, we must allow blessedness to be the controlling element, for our fundamental idea of God is that of absolute perfection.4
Therefore for God to see our plight within the time and space of this world and to love us in the sense of feeling holy sympathy toward us, is truly a “disinterested” benevolence. In disagreeing also with Gill, Charles Hodge is even more bold,
Here again we have to choose between a mere philosophical speculation and the clear testimony of the Bible, and of our own moral and religious nature. Love of necessity involves feeling, and if there be no feeling in God, there can be no love. That He produces happiness is no proof of love. The earth does that unconsciously and without design. Men often render others happy from vanity, from fear, or from caprice. Unless the production of happiness can be referred, not only to a conscious intention, but to a purpose dictated by kind feeling, it is no proof of benevolence. And unless the children of God are the objects of his complacency and delight, they are not the objects of his love.5
Thiessen also says, “But immutability does not mean immobility. True love necessarily involves feeling, and if there be no feeling in God, then there is no love of God . . . . By the benevolence of God we mean the affection which He feels and manifests towards His sentient and conscious creatures.”6 Finally, Buswell gives a fitting conclusion,
Unless we wish to reduce the love of God to the frozen wastes of pure speculative abstraction, we should shake off the static ideology which has come into Christian theology from non-biblical sources, and insist upon preaching the living God of intimate actual relationships with His people. God’s immutability is the absolutely perfect consistency of His character in His actual relationships, throughout history, with His finite creation.7
A note should be made at this point to caution us against any attempt to make this attribute of the love of God into some kind of support for the novel view of the “openness” of God. As Strong points out, God’s blessedness or perfection becomes the controlling factor in His moral attributes.
A Christmas Application
As Christmas is increasingly under attack in our country, Christians are implored even more to display the unique attributes of God’s all-giving love. God’s agape love asks nothing in return but rather gives of itself entirely for the sake of the one in need. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). In a real sense, sinners do not want to hear of God’s agape love. Other loves that involve a give-and-take at least say to the sinner that he has something worthy to give in return. But agape love is truly “disinterested” in any gain to self. Indeed, as we have seen, God does not need anything in return and cannot accept the sinner’s recompense for His love. He has given us His love in an all-giving manner.
We may speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) and find that the world hates us, as it did Jesus, because we testify of it that its works are evil (John 7:7). But since we did not speak of the agape love of God in order to receive anything in return, it does not affect us in any way. We have learned to be “complacent” with the love of God that is shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5).
David wrote of this dilemma in the Psalm, They rewarded me evil for good to the spoiling of my soul. But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom. I behaved myself as though he had been my friend or brother: I bowed down heavily, as one that mourneth for his mother (Psa. 35:12-14). The apostle Paul wrote, I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. I have showed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:33-35).
I suppose it is a “natural” thing for us to give that someone may give to us in return. Sometimes we give because we have been made obligated to return someone’s charity. There is no doubt that “giving” has now become a matter of cataloging, returning, upgrading, exchanging, and even registering so that no intention is left to anonimity. Perhaps, rather than growing disinterested and complacent in our attributes of benevolence, we have grown self-interested and conceited. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them. And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? For sinners also do even the same. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? For sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again (Luke 16:25).
Where would we be if God had not loved us with a disinterested benevolence and a complacent love? We ought, therefore, to strive for what James described: My brethren count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing (James 1:2-4). To “want nothing” is to have a complacent love of the Savior and to say with the Psalmist, The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want (Psa. 23:1). This is where we may begin to love as He loved and to desire to give entirely for the benefit of others without thought to our own situation. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me (Heb. 13:6). This is the quality we gravitate to in Christian leaders: Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever (Heb. 13:7). Perfect complacency in the One that gives when it cannot be given unto Him again (Rom. 11:35)! How refreshing that would be in this day of corporate successes, personal vision statements, leadership seminars, how-to-do-it formulas, that we might humble ourselves in true servant ministry as our Lord did. For though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9). For though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God toward you (2 Cor 13:4).
And So . . . .
The Christmas season is the time for the recipients of God’s love to renew their commitments to His service. How could we do less than return the same unselfish love that has been shown to us! Spurgeon, in his Morning and Evening, records this entry.
Notes: 1. Charles G. Finney, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1994) 144. 2. Finney, 148. 3. John Gill, Body of Divinity (Atlanta: Turner Lassetter, 1965) 81. 4. Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan: Fleming Revell, 1970) 266. 5. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977) 429. 6. Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968) 131. 7. J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980) 56. 8. C.H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1948) 44.
Christian, pause and ponder for a moment. What a debtor thou art to divine sovereignty! How much thou owest to His disinterested love, for He gave His own Son that He might die for thee. Consider how much you owe to His forgiving grace, that after ten thousand affronts He loves you as infinitely as ever. Consider what you owe to His power; how He has raised you from your death in sin; how He has preserved your spiritual life; how He has kept you from falling; and how, though a thousand enemies have beset your path, you have been able to hold on your way. To God thou owest thyself and all thou hast—yield thyself as a living sacrifice; it is but thy reasonable service.